Transparency and open data is great, but is it enough?

Liz Turner from iconomical has been involved in some really quite good public service open data projects in the last few years, including Where does my money go?, Research funding explorer and the London Gazette.

Graph: Where does my money go?

Graph showing public spending trends: Where does my money go?

Each of these projects ticks the boxes of a good open data project. They make non-personal public information more accessible online, they visualise data to make it easier to understand and they enable audiences to interrogate data in different ways and find out more. You can drill down into the detail of specific data sets (say, by a topic or region), you can look at broader trends over time and you can filter data to find out more about a specific interest area.

A voyage of discovery

Liz says that when you’re dealing with large volumes of data and opening it up, such as public spending accounts or public transport data, one of the most exciting things is that you never quite know what you’re going to find. So, these kind of projects are always in part, a voyage of discovery and data owners and audiences have to be prepared to find surprises along the way. Sounds interesting right?

Ulm Ptolemy World Map (1482)

Ulm Ptolemy World Map (1482)

Well, whilst there’s no doubt that these kind of projects are moving us in the right direction in terms of government openness, accountability and democracy, Liz shared a few anecdotes about the realities of working with clients in this sector, including the UK Treasury and the Tanzanian government. In both instances they were asked to amend the level of data offered, so the detail of public spending was not entirely available for public access and scrutiny – presumably because it highlighted something that the client was uncomfortable sharing. Which kind of misses the point right?

Transparency is a really good thing, but is it the answer?

I don’t think there are many folks that would argue that improving access to non-personal public data to further transparency is a bad thing. However, throughout this session, the question that kept coming back round in my mind was – is it enough? If you’re a public service organisation investing in projects that make non-personal public data more available and usable, shouldn’t you also be responsible for telling people about it and providing the facility for them to use it and feedback?

In my mind at least, open data projects shouldn’t just be about making information accessible online, they should also involve raising awareness amongst the broader public that this stuff there for them to see, use and comment on, and they should value listening as much as sharing.

Open data projects should also involve building relationships with key communities who might actually use data in a deeper way, whether the aim is to engage with it critically, artistically and/or to create new tools and services that solve problems and make life easier and better. This group includes hackers, developers, designers, producers, journalists and artists, and although activity in this area is taking place, I think we can do better.

Start with people and problems, not data

Inspired by Karl Alfrink’s talk entitled New games and new cities, where he told us to ‘put people before stuff’, I think there is a case to take the same approach with open data projects.

At the moment, much of the activity taking place around organisations opening up their data involves running hack days where developer’s are invited to ‘have a play’ and ‘see what happens’ with the data on offer. Now, whilst I’m a supporter of this kind of activity and believe that it has an important place in the UK open data movement, because of the sand-box approach, much of the stuff that come out of hack-days rarely gets pursued any further, and tends focuses on what can be done with the data on offer, rather than starting with with the needs of people or a real world challenges – which I think is a shame.

We’re already in a situation where there is now more data out there than we know what to do with, and as more and more organisations ‘open up’ (whether it’s releasing xls files or structured databases), the quantity of non-personal public data is only going to increase. So, I wonder whether the role of organisations running open data projects should shift towards providing insights into their audiences and the challenges they face, alongside the data, in order to encourage the development of creative solutions to real world problems. Whether it’s about engaging new audiences, enabling organisations to work together more effectively or creating services that improve access to information in new and relevant ways or tools that bring organisations and audiences closer together. Or other things…

What about art?

As I’ve discussed before, I think that open data offers artists the opportunity to explore the subjects that they’re interested in and forms of art production in new ways. Ways that are fast becoming increasingly relevant to contemporary life.

A Planetary Order by Martin John Callanan (2009)

A Planetary Order by Martin John Callanan (2009)

By using real-world information and data as their raw material, whether it’s produced by people and/or the technologies and systems embedded in the world around us, artists can play a critical role in revealing new things about the world in which we live and help us to explore and understand the world in new ways. Artists could also start to develop new forms of contemporary art.

Martin John Callanan’s A Planetary Order (2009) is a data visualisation that takes a sculptured form. Part of the Serendipity Cities exhibition in 2010, A Planetary Order is a 3D globe that replicates a series of images of the Earth’s atmosphere taken from space. It visualises cloud formations around the Earth from a single moment in time, and in doing so, attempts to highlight the fragility and interdependence of the Earth’s environmental systems. This work couldn’t take place without the existence of cameras, satellites and the data they produce. On the other hand, in taking the form of a sculpted object (made from SLS nylon), the work feels very much at home in the context of the gallery and can be easily understood as a form of ‘visual art’ too.

– claire_w – (follow me on twitter)

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