Archive for the ‘open data’ Category

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Open : Data : Culture

July 2, 2014

I was asked to give a presentation at the AND Festival #filmhack at Cornerhouse, Manchester. This was my first gig as Co-Founder of The Garden.

The presentation called Open : Data : Culture was about how we understand data, its effects and the ways it can be visualised. It was a 10 minute presentation so there was a lot to get through in a short space of time.

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The Weight of Efficiency

July 2, 2014

I was at a Smart City event the other week and I was irked by the multiple references to technology = efficiency. That the internet of things will enable frictionless and seamless transactions between humans and their devices and amongst devices themselves. There were a couple of things that I challenged the speakers on. One being that sometimes the friction is what life is all about and actually if we lived in a frictionless environment our experience will become mediated through the devices that allow this pervasive experience. This could eventually lead to a homogenized human experience.

Also that efficiency is often used as a weightless term. That efficiency has no or little cost. From experience efficiency = saving money = making people redundant. The euphemistic use of the word creates a number of problems when trying to engage people with technological change. People can, quite rightly, be afraid of the adoption of new technology, as they know all too well their job could potentially be on the line. If we’re honest from the outset about what the impacts would be, perhaps we would be able to create an environment for a more intelligent and engaged conversation about change.

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The Unseen City

January 17, 2013

The majority of people in the world live in an urban environment. According to the United Nations, this watershed was reached on 23rd May 2007. Cities are seen as places of opportunity, from London’s streets paved with gold to New York’s ‘Big Apple’. They have a gravity that pulls in people, resources and land. Cities are places where disparate communities live cheek by jowl, where serendipity and spontaneity create potential for new direction and opportunity. This isn’t a flat landscape. Within the city many factors create inequality – whether it is access to services, jobs, transportation or even opportunity.

Cities themselves are complex organisms composed of many layers that have in most cases, evolved with the city. The physical manifestation of the city is that of roads and buildings, of built environment. It is tangible, concrete and visible. There are layers of processes, relationships and flows within the city, and what Matt Jones, Founder of Dopplr, described as the immaterial layer. The immaterial layer is data. It tracks, evidences and actuates. Although a proportion of this data is in the domain of commercial organisations, much of it is created by the city as part of its normal function of service delivery.

Public data is often held ad-hoc by proprietary systems and constrained by departmental or quasi-commercial restrictions. This data, when released, offers a chance for analysis and interpretation outside of the narrow field of view of its creating body. When Open Data Manchester petitioned for the release of local transportation data in 2010, the reasons were practical – timetables and stop locations will make people’s journeys easier. This, in a sense, suffered same myopia as that which created the data. It was when MySociety and then Stefan Whermeyer created dynamic isochronic maps (maps where travel times are overlaid onto a map with open data) that a new dimension to transportation within the city appeared.

Mapnificent - Isochronic Map of Manchester

On a base level, the map shows the distance that can be covered in a given time, which is useful if you are looking for somewhere to live and commute – but the more interesting revelation is when you start to look at how communities are served by public transport. How do you travel across the city that has a ‘spoke and hub’ transportation system and, intriguingly, where could possible pressures on public services, housing and amenities arise in the future. By describing schedules and stops, this data later – when combined with other data such as fare structures, indices of depravation or all manner of other datasets – reveals a previously invisible facet of the city.

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Isochronic map showing tram journey times from 1914 – Courtesy of Manchester Archives

Manchester is, like many cities, a post industrial city. This map of the transportation system is not unlike the previous map and reveals travel times from the centre of Manchester using public transport in 1914. It is a similar sort of visualisation, revealing the same ‘spoke and hub’ nature of the the city’s transportation system, the difference being that the city of 1914 was a heavily industrialised city, with coal mines, cotton mills, steel works, chemical factories and workers’ neighbourhoods. The industrial city has long gone, but the traces of it can still be seen in the routes and stops of the transport system that we have today.

Data reveals other traces of this past. Heavy industry sometimes leaves a lasting stain on the land and neighbourhoods. Local anecdotes give a clue as to what once existed. In East Manchester where factories were built in close proximity to the homes of the workers, stories abound of molten metal being transported through residential streets, of blue pigeons or spontaneously combusting soil. What might seem like tall tails of a bygone era are incredibly important. UK local authorities have an obligation to map the legacy of heavy industry, with data being held in Contaminated Land registries. Often a charge is made to access it, restricting access to the wider community.

By making this type of data openly available, we create an environment where whimsical tales of discoloured wildlife are confirmed or discounted and people are able to decide whether they can grow their own food, or move into or out of an area. The City of Manchester, as part of its commitment to open data, has started started releasing Contaminated Land data and, although it is not perfect, at least it will enable people to start to understand the pollution that is around them. Some of the reports reveal land with unsafe quantities of arsenic and other metals – land that you would not want to grow your vegetables on. Data such as this is contentious as it reveals something about the local environment that previously  was only available to a few. Liberating this data has both benefits and challenges. On one hand, people can make more informed and choices and on the other hand, someone might find that the value of their home declines or their neighbourhood becomes less attractive.

By exposing a city’s data layer, we have the opportunity to reveal many of these insights and hopefully through this knowledge we can make our cities more equitable and understandable. Data is starting to be released revealing levels of depravation, crime and access to services within the city. This sometimes reveals what is unknown or what is known only to a few, and some of the data reinforces what was known only anecdotally.

Perception of an area is sometimes not confirmed by underlying data. A classic example is perception of crime against actual crime. People may live in an area where the level of crime is high, but the community environment might give the impression of relative safety. The underlying factors behind perception of crime are complex but the challenges around the releasing of such data are not unique.

Knowing about something isn’t the same as being able to do something about it, and work has to be done so that this new knowledge has a wider benefit. A local council representative, when asked about releasing contentious data, retorted “Who are we to tell people how bad their neighbourhoods are?” This is an important point that reveals something about the way public service has traditionally been delivered, where knowledge was held by a few who saw that their role was delivering service to, and not with, people. It also underlines the point that making data available is not enough. With openness comes responsibility – and this is incumbent on those who seek to create such an environment, that they also help create the the tools and understanding necessary for everyone to understand and act.

Perhaps revealing and opening up the data layer is the easy part. Cities have always had their asymmetries as far as access to knowledge, resources and the ability to act is concerned. But to return to the council official’s comment, “Who are we to tell people how bad their neighbourhoods are?” The answer, I would say, is “Who are we not to?”

This article was written for The Open Book, published by The Finnish Institute 2013

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Open Data and the Enfranchisement of Society

June 23, 2010

If you didn’t know it Open Data is the biggest game in town. It offers to solve society’ ills, make us all rich and fix corruption in government, as the universal panacea it has a lot going for it. Modern technologised societies exist on data. It is the lifeblood that courses through the veins of every institution, creating the foundation and evidence of action.

As individuals in our modern technologised society we are our own personal data firehouse. The choices that we make and the places we go create a digital footprint that is accumulated, tabulated and interpreted by public bodies and private enterprise alike.

The opening up of publically held datasets has the potential to reengage citizens who have become disenfranchised by the process of government. This relationship between the state and populace is seen to be at an all time low, creating issues around legitimacy and governance. The disconnect between citizen and state has been fuelled by perceived corruption such as the UK parliamentary expenses scandal, dubious press representation – climate change and the Congestion Charge and conspiracy through perceived cover ups and lack of access to information or information that is thought to exist but doesn’t.

Open data allows people to see and interpret the underlying data informing the decision making process; allowing the potential for a meaningful and equitable dialogue. Instead of passive citizens, interested parties can hold policy makers to account. By allowing scrutiny potential corruption and perceived corruption can be overcome. The Daily Telegraph uncovered a closed dataset that concealed the MPs expenses leading to the 1995 elected parliament being dubbed ‘The Rotten Parliament’. If the information was publically available it could be assumed that the environment for the misuse and concealment of expenses may never of been created, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

The London Congestion charge is widely seen as being a success. It has removed unnecessary vehicular movement within the centre of London and encouraged people to use other modes of transport. It didn’t create the economic catastrophe for business that was predicted and Central London is perceived to be a more pleasant place for it. For such a successful policy, it would seem to be done deal for other cities to follow suit. But as Manchester found out with its own TIF charging scheme this was not to be the case. If data evidencing the success of the Congestion Charge and the underlying case for similar schemes had been made available then the decision may have been different. When data is closed those that have vested interest in misinterpretation are able to act with impunity.

Opening up information in a machine readable format creates an environment for efficient sharing of information across public bodies. By conceptually changing the notion of data ownership from being departmental to public you reduce the need for separate departmental infrastructure. Many public policies cut across departments and so efficiencies are apparent. Since 2004 Washington DC has been developing its open data policies with much value coming from the creation of internal systems that can use the real-time and aggregated data the city creates. Track DC is a dashboard that allows departmental budgets, key performance indicators and projects to be tracked across all 86 agencies in the district government. This standardised dashboard allows differing departments to coordinate and collaborate more efficiently.

Open Data has reached a critical period in its adoption, a perfect storm of circumstances has propelled it onto the public agenda. It can be argued that had we not entered into a period of uncertainty brought about by the collapse of financial institutions coupled with a deteriorating belief in the mechanisms of scrutiny and the inevitable distrust in government, open data would not be so highly placed. It offers the mechanism for a more engaged populace by creating the environment for evidence based policy making. The public having access to the same information as the politicians can view the process and logic of governance. Through the enhanced power of scrutiny the electorate can hold the public bodies that do their bidding to account.

Reconnecting and accountability offers the reduction of the systems that would keep the information in silos and the people who are paid to maintain them. In a time where money is at a premium and politicians of all colours have to decide where to make politically difficult budgetary decisions, the savings that can be made through remodelling of information systems is logical and politically expedient. Cutting an IT budget and the job losses created is more appealing than the reduction in front line services. The job cuts and savings are potentially huge. But this reduction in the IT sector offers the potential for those effected to be at forefront of creating the applications and methodologies that will allow individuals and institutions to interpret released data.

Very few people have the skills, time and inclination to digest this deluge of information. Conceptually releasing data is seen as a good thing to do, but if people and organisations lack the power to filter and interpret then the situation could be worse than when information was held in closed systems. Information is a resource and our ability to make decisions that will have a beneficial impact on our lives and working practises creates a value. Simplistically anything that has value has demand and demand leads to the creation of mechanisms to exploit that value. Open Data offers a myriad of opportunity for organisations and individuals that want to exploit the new data terrain, whether it be for commercial, civic or private gain. As an indicator of demand for data, repositories of dormant applications waiting for the open data flow exist. CityGoRound.org lists 130 transport applications in waiting. Most are built to exploit the information of a particular locality but with open data modification to any locality that provides the same information is a relatively simple affair.

This ability to create applications and architecture allowing different localities to be accessed in a standardised way offers a glimpse of a future where individual cities can be accessed and interpreted in the same way. Where potentially we become citizens of the concept of city rather than a geographical city. Several US cities are exploring the potential of an Open City API where no matter which city you are in, you can access information and service the way that you choose using your technology of choice by agreeing to work in this way cities

The vision of the open data world appeals as it offers us ways that will enable us to understand the places we inhabit. It creates the potential for easier and more efficient ways of working and interaction. But this techno-deterministic view is flawed. It presupposes that all have access, or the ability to act on this information. Technology costs and although most have computers many do not. We need to fundamentally think how we create the environment where all citizens can participate and act on open data. If the open data experiment is to succeed, serious thought needs to be done to enable people to act intelligently with the choices that are presented to them. If this doesn’t happen the potential for reengaging civil society will be lost and the digital divide will be maintained and could be widened.