The open data movement will be a people’s revolution

13 May 2011

The emerging open data revolution could transform ordinary people’s lives and create jobs as governments and businesses see the merit of opening up their data vaults. Welcome to the people’s information technology revolution.

Get ready to fall in love with technology … all over again. There’s a revolution coming, it’s a revolution that could potentially empower millions, if not billions of people. But it will be a trickle before it becomes a raging torrent.

You see until now most organisations lived by the maxim information is power. Indeed it is power, but only if you know what to do with it. Imagine instead of holding onto that power you instead empower people to take that raw data that sits on databases and spreadsheets and allow them to do something proactive with it.

I felt goosebumps yesterday afternoon at the Irish Internet Association’s annual conference as I learned how across the world governments are opening up data sets and allow citizens and businesses to make what they will with the data – such as better data models to understand their water consumption or new technology products or applications that could be commercialised and sold around the world.

This is exciting stuff and heralds a people’s information technology revolution, not the boring corporate stuff of the last two or three decades.

I nearly fell out of my seat when it became apparent to me that all four of Dublin’s local authorities are joined at the hip in opening up their data for the public good and believe entrepreneurs could thrive by creating smart city products that other cities could buy to address things like environment, healthcare, traffic, congestion, assertive citizenship, you name it.

I was razor-focused on the open data concept and little else yesterday because I suspected the IIA grasped the nettle early on when it called on the State in recent weeks to open up its data to citizens, especially data that sits inside the systems of the 34 local authorities.

My curiosity was rewarded when IBM’s Constantin Gurdgiev pointed out that if all kinds of data were opened up to ordinary people – be they entrepreneurs or just private individuals – the opportunities to model that data and create apps and tools to help them live more smartly or proactively are vast. For example a householder if given more data on their energy usage by a utilities firm could have an app that analyses and predicts how much he/she will spend on electricity in the near future. He has a point, the vessels for this knowledge – smartphones, tablet computers, PCs, smart TVs – already exist, someone just needs to do something creative with all this data.

In the US the open data principle has been grasped. Chris Vein, deputy US chief technology officer, said: “Whether you call them geeks or techies, some of the greatest innovations in government have been the result of citizen developers who simply want to do their part to make our government work better. From the Department of Health and Human Services’ Community Data Health Initiative to ‘Transportation Camps’ – un-meetings aimed at solving transportation problems – throughout the United States, citizens are using their talents to help make government data that are simply lying around actually work for the American people.

“By adopting an open data policy, the government have the opportunity to directly benefit from the technical expertise of its own people by allowing its able developer community access to enormous data sets that lie largely unscrutinised and unused. Unlocking these data mines and allowing those skilled in eeking out the nuggets, polishing the data and carving elegant solutions to public services will benefit everyone – citizens, governments, entrepreneurs.”

How Ireland is embracing the open data opportunity

It was clear yesterday at the IIA conference that inside Ireland’s public sector there is agreement. Tim Willoughby of the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB) is pioneering the initiative with the view that apps may emerge that will empower local government workers in the field and give citizens a greater say in the world around them.

One example is ‘Fix My Street’, an app being developed by the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB) that allows citizens in South County Dublin take a photo of potholes and send them into the County Council, urging action.

“We’re taking a Donald Rumsfeld approach to open data: ‘there’s things we know, there’s things we don’t know and there’s things we don’t know we know.’ There’s a level of engagement that needs to occur with developers for example and one idea would be to hold a Dublin Castle Developer’s Day to see what data sets can be opened up and shared with developers who could create useful apps for citizens and businesses.

“But we have to start somewhere, learn from our experiences and learn again and again,” Willoughby added, pointing to a minefield of potential issues such as data protection. “First of all there’s different types of data, no personally identifiable data, which is aggregated to an electoral division level. The model I’m attracted is making the data available on a ‘best effort’ basis in terms of what people think they could do with the data sets.

“For example 25pc of local government staff in Ireland are not deskbound and there could be clever things done to help them prove work has been completed on things like removing graffiti, dealing with unfinished housing estates, water meters, and all of it can be geo-located. So this will not only drive efficiencies that can be gained from mobile apps but give citizens knowledge about the work being done in their area.”

Dominic Byrne of Fingal County Council said there needs to be greater dialogue with developers around what data sets are valuable. Also going forward as we rebuild systems the intention is to replace legacy systems with open data systems.

“Some countries are beginning to have hack days or open developer days and any one interested in getting involved should let us know,” Byrne said.

Useful data = opportunities and jobs

Gurdgiev said that there’s a chicken and egg situation that arises around the whole open data argument and that is really down to the usability of the data. “The key is deriving analytical data. It’s not just the data itself that is valuable but the ability to use that data. The opportunity is really about gaining insights that tell you about future trends. There are opportunities for apps that analyse and visualise certain data for people. For Ireland this is a valuable opportunity because no where else in the world has seized it either.”

Peter Finnegan, director of International Relations & Research at Dublin City Council, said that the four local authorities in Dublin have already embarked on a regional open data initiative.

He said they believe that opening up data for developers to create more informative products and services for citizens will in turn create businesses and jobs for the region.

“The broad message is that Dublin is open for business and making data available to help people make great products. It’s a fact, the local authorities have stepped into this space and this should be encouraging. Now start-ups and SMEs have to step up to the plate.

“It’s not just about apps but intelligent street lights, creating services for citizens, better transport. Come and knock on our door and tell us what data you want and we will see if we can work together and in turn help create jobs.

“There’s huge potential to make jobs and make money. All solutions should be for profit and export and should be driven by taking real life challenges and seeing how the data we have been gathering can be opened up to create solutions.

“It’s about leveraging economic opportunities like open data to make Dublin a place to invest. It’s about participative democracy,” Finnegan told a rapt IIA audience.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years