Digital Adventures


Opening the information floodgates – why open data is here to stay. by claire_w

On Tuesday 16 November the Royal Society ran a fantastic free public lecture entitled Opening the information floodgates: the technologies and challenges of a web of linked data. Interested in the new opportunities that open data projects can bring to the public sector, and more specifically our work at Kew, Mike (Director of Digital Media at Kew) and I decided to attend and find out more.

The lecture was led by Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southampton. In June 2009 together with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Nigel was appointed to help transform public access to Government information. A major output of this work has been data.gov.uk – a single point of access for all Government non-personal public data. In May 2010 he was appointed by the Coalition Government to the Public Sector Transparency Board responsible for setting open data standards across the public sector and developing the legal Right to Data.

What is a web of ‘Linked Data’?

It is broadly accepted that we live in an age of superabundant information, and the Internet and World Wide Web have been key agents in this revolution.

Internet map 1024.jpg

Visualisation of the structure of the internet - wiki commons

In the introduction to his talk, Nigel Shadbolt said that this deluge of information and data has already led to a range of scientific discoveries and engineering innovations. From characterising the shape and structure of the Web to efficiently searching its billions of items of content.

Following developments in the semantic web and the recent release of large UK public data sets into the public domain, Nigel believes that we are now witnessing the emergence of a new Web – a Web of ‘Linked Data.’ This, Nigel says, offers new opportunities for science, government and business.

On top of the data released via data.gov.uk earlier this year, the new requirement for MPs to publish their expenses online and the Coalition Government’s recent announcement to change the law ensuring that all data released under the Freedom of Information Act is machine readable, provide yet more signs that the reality of open data in the UK is here to stay.

Nigel went on to describe the spectrum of ‘openness’ in the context of ‘Linked Data’. From the publication of public documents in pdf format (least open format of ‘Linked Data’), to data in which real-world things are given addresses on the web (URIs) and data is published about them in machine-readable formats at those locations (most open format of ‘Linked Data’).

Find out more about ‘Linked Data’ and data.gov.uk.

Why share non-personal public data?

At the centre of the ‘open data’ movement is the idea that increased access to non-personal public data, information and knowledge is changing the rules of our relationship with power, politics, our communities and our environment. On the one hand it offers new levels of transparency alongside the opportunity to rethink the world in which we live and how it works. And on the other hand, particularly in the context of ‘Linked Data’, it opens up a world of possibilities for using public information in new ways, including the creation of new kinds of digital products, services and tools that can support positive social change.

Based on this position, Nigel listed five specific reasons why public service organisations should seriously consider sharing non-personal public data online and open up their information for broader public access and interpretation.

  • Improve transparency for UK tax payers.
  • Stimulate new economic value by inviting people to build businesses around the interrogation, analysis and use of non-personal public data.
  • ‘Get more for less’ by inviting the public to help improve and interpret data, adding value in different ways. The UK transport mapped project is a good example of this.
  • Engage citizens with public information in new ways.
  • Stimulate new kinds of discussion and debate.

If this all feels a little bit abstract, here’s a list of some of my favourite ‘real world’ services and tools that have already been created by entrepreneurial developers using public data sets made available via data.gov.uk.

ASBOrometre

This mobile application provides access to anti-social behaviour (ASB) information at your current location and gives you access to key local ASB statistics. ASBOrometre website.

Asborometer

Asborometer screen shot

The application uses ASBO CDRP survey full dataset Oct 03 to March 09 and the Number of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). This data is provided by the Home Office under the UK Crown Copyright licence.

AirText

Provides air pollution alerts by text, email and voicemail for people living in London. Users select a zone to receive the alerts for, when air pollution levels are predicted to reach MODERATE or higher levels, users receive an alert to warn them that pollution may be elevated. AIRtext website.

This service uses London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (LAEI) data set, provided by Greater London Authority.

CycleStreets

This UK-wide cycle journey planner system lets you plan routes from A to B by bike. The site is currently in beta testing phase. Cyclists around the country are invited to test out routes and contribute feedback to help improve mapping data. Cycle Streets website.

This service uses map data from OpenStreetMap which is freely available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Where does my money go?

This project promotes transparency and citizen engagement through the analysis and visualisation of information about UK public spending. An independent project run by the Open Knowledge Foundation, the aim is to make government finances easier to explore and understand – so you can see where every pound of your taxes gets spent. WhereDoesMyMoneyGo website.

Find out more about the data sets used.

Where does my money go?

Where does my money go? screen shot

What are the challenges?

Many of the challenges facing the open data movement stem from the fact that it’s at an early stage in its life cycle and mainstream implementation requires a shift in ‘culture’.

Many of us working in the public sector have a pretty low awareness of the benefits, opportunities and risks that open data projects can bring and some of us are understandably anxious about adopting new approaches to information transparency and citizen empowerment before we understand these aspects more fully.

Common questions and concerns include, how can we ensure that the quality and integrity of non-personal public data and information is retained once they are opened up for public use and interpretation? How can we respect and protect our privacy in a world of increasingly interconnected data? How can we strike the right balance between making the most of new opportunities while retaining an understanding of how these developments might impact other aspects of our lives? How can we ensure that we ‘don’t take things too far too soon?’

In response to the issues of data integrity and public interpretation, Nigel believes that much like like existing information online, the provenance of open data will become increasingly important to the value and credibility applied to it and any consequent products that are created using it. On top of this (and in Nigel’s experience), people interested in using non-personal public data sets to create products, services and tools are generally pretty good at interpreting it. It’s worth remembering for instance, that it’s in the interest of the person using public data to interpret it effectively and responsibly, because their reputation as a ‘producer’ is on the line as well. On the flip side, it’s the data publishers responsibility to ensure that information explaining the context of data sets, including how it was gathered and its limitations is made available at point of use too.

A shifting culture…

As the open data movement picks up pace, one of the most exciting areas for me is the new opportunities open data projects offer to explore public data in new ways and stimulate new kinds of discussion and debate around it, particularly as different non-personal data sets are linked up and interrogated together. Information that may not have been looked at together or compared before could start to provide new kinds of public value – in the discussions they start and the questions they both pose and answer.

Another aspect of open data projects that excites me is the new opportunities they offer organisations to engage audiences and enable people to participate in some way. This could be applications that enable individuals to interrogate and/or compare public data quickly and easily or tools that enable data users to add value to public information in some way, either through verification or adding more detail.

In the context of Kew for instance, we recently published a global analysis of extinction risk for the world’s plants that revealed that one in five of the world’s plant species threatened with extinction. The study, entitled IUCN Sampled Red List Index for Plants, is a major baseline for plant conservation and is the first time that the true extent of the threat to the world’s estimated 380,000 plant species is known.

Explore the state of plant life

Explore the state of plant life around the world

A first for plant science and global plant conservation, this was also one of the first projects by Kew that enabled non-specialist online audiences to engage with real scientific data directly. Although this project is not a truly open project, as we didn’t release the data via open standards for public use, the maps and graphs that we produced did offer mainstream audiences a series of visual interpretations that improved access to real scientific data – so a step in the right direction. Very much a data driven project, I wonder what kind of analysis and interpretations might have been produced had we released this data into the public domain? You can take a look at our maps and graphs here.

In the process of shifting from a position of ‘my data’ to ‘our data’, I hope that we (at Kew and the broader pubic sector) will start to get involved in more open data projects and gain first hand experience of the new opportunities in this area and start sharing the benefits and learning that we gather.

It seems to me that improving access to non-personal public data and information is a good thing and an exciting prospect. The non-personal data sets that we share can only become increasingly valuable over time – as we are able to compare new data sets with old ones, find new relationships between different kinds of information and start to produce services that make access to public information quicker and easier and tools that make public services better, more collaborative and more relevant.

– Claire Welsby –

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Related links

Other blog posts by Claire about this topic

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I was at the talk too and while open data sounds like a good idea I suspect that it is fatally flawed due to quality and interpretation issues. http://hamlife.blogspot.com/2010/11/opening-information-floodgates.html

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