In preparation for Digital Odyssey coming up this week, I had a quick conversation with one of our presenter’s, Mita Williams. It’s worth a read, or a listen, as the case may be.
The transcript is edited for clarity . The audio can be found below.
Beth: So, the first thing I wanted to ask you was: why open data? Like, what got you interested in it in the first place?
Mita: Oooh, I don’t actually have a good origin story. It was always just kind of in the water because I was interested in open source communities and I was also interested in civic engagement and in making governments better. Open data is where those two worlds collided. The more time I spent looking at open data the more I kept thinking that this is the sort of work that is in our wheel house. This is what librarians do. Or should do or could do.
Beth: Yeah, there’s a lot of that in the Twittersphere lately just about how the librarian’s specialty is dealing with a lot of information and so these open data sets are something we would, sort of, naturally be a good fit for.
Mita: Yeah, how I talk about it depends on who my audience is. For example if I was talking to scientists, I would say “open data makes for good science because it allows people to replicate results and improve results”. And if I was talking to others I sometimes say that because of digital the scale of our work has grown to include data.
Or you can get into all sort of philosophical questions. When libraries had only printed books their use wasn’t so prescripted. But now that they are digital they come with licensing and the licensing defines what we can do and ultimately, what we are. We’re so constrained by e-book licensing.
Beth: Yeah, for sure. We’re grappling with some of those issues in public libraries as well…
I’m going to stop myself from getting too off track though, and ask for some examples of where you’ve seen open data used well or where its use has affected government? Or policy, or leaders in our communities?
Mita: One of the things I like about open is that there are people using it in ways that you wouldn’t expect them to. Or they respond to it in different ways than you expect. So for example, in Chicago, one of the things they did was put GPS trackers on their snow plows.
But before I get into it, I should state as background that there are some people who are really interested in open government data because they want transparency and accountability. The idea is that it’s harder to hide things like corruption if you make things open.
So back to the snowplows. The benefit of having the snow plows GPS points open and is that it allowed the creation of a real-time map that showed where each of the plows is located. Before this map, there were some people who assuming the worst and when a snow plow was late to their neighborhood they assumed it was because the snow plows were prioritizing more affluent neighborhoods. But with the map, they could see that this wasn’t the case and so the map gave reassurance that a service was working well. Interestingly, it also gave a greater understanding of how the whole system of the city worked.
Beth: That’s really cool. I’d like that in Toronto.
Mita: Yes! In case of transit, I would like real-time bus data because I think open data can relieve so much of the anxiety of “Did I just miss the bus? Or is a minute away?”
Beth: Yeah. It’s giving us that perspective. Now I’m going to get a little more technical. I’ve heard lately of one or two cases where data sets were being provided in formats like excel or pdf. And, I know this isn’t very useful but I’m basically just sort of guessing why. So, maybe you can give a more educated explanation for that and tell us what formats this data should be in?
Mita: So, there’s two sides to open data: licensing and data formats. One of the projects that I’m working with is Open Data Windsor Essex. We’re talking to nonprofit groups as many of them do their own research to figure out how they can be more effective on the ground. In doing so they produce these wonderful reports with lots of great unique tabular data in charts. But what happens when someone else in the community wants to reuse that data in the table? If it’s a pdf composed of scanned pages, the pages are basically photographs of documents. And sometimes even if it’s a ‘born’ pdf, you often can’t just cut and paste columns of numbers because the process loses all that tabular formatting.
So if an organization also provides an excel spreadsheet of the contained tables, it goes so far into making their work more reusable in the community. And then, at another level of complexity, if it an organization can present their data in a format where a computer can read it on a regular basis, all of a sudden, they know can provide information as a service. For example, the local health unit might put on their website whether the local beach is closed or not. But if they make this same information available through an API, others could feed this information more widely into other websites, apps, or even twitter bots.
Not to oversell it, but the promise of open data is that if you make your data available both in license and in format, then other people will surprise you with the uses they will find for it.
Beth: Yeah. But that’s the beauty of it kind of.
Mita: Exactly! The hackerspace I’m involved in had an open data hackathon with students. One group took the city data and they turned it into a game. They overlaid hospital and garbage sites onto a map and they turned it into the basis of a start of a zombie game.
Beth: Neat! In your blog you mentioned that you are specifically interested in new software options and platforms that are making web mapping a lot more accessible to individuals and community groups and I work with public libraries so that’s particularly relevant to me. Um, could you tell me a little bit more about those programs?
Mita: Yes! Not that long ago if you wanted to create a map of your city of some sort, you most likely needed to have access to what’s known as Geographical Information Systems software, or GIS software. That’s software is specialized software: powerful and expensive. GIS software can do really amazing complicated things related to spatial analysis. For example, you can give it spatial information about rainfall, about elevation, and soil types, and then if then you put in formulas that relate to each and the GIS can compute and show where there could be a flood zone.
But for a long time, if you wanted to make a simple computer map, there was nothing that you could use. What really changed things was Google Maps and how so many of us have mobile phones which gave us the expectation to find things that were near us. And now there are new mapping platforms to choose from.
Beth: Can you just name one or two of those software platforms?
Mita: Yes I can. So there are companies that provide a platform for mapping that aren’t Google or Bing. One is CartoDB (and one of our keynote speakers at Digital Odyssey will be coming from CartoDB) and another company is called MapBox.
Beth: Are there any major challenges you foresee in open data at the moment?
Beth: Alright, so my last question was: why should we be excited about your session at Digital Odyssey? Other than that it’s just super practical and hands-on and I think it sort of tackles that learning curve issue a little bit? Like it gives people their first taste of using this software without being overwhelmed? [laughter] Maybe I’ve sold it for you…
Mita: No, that’s exactly it! What I bring to this workshop is that I still remember starting from zero and trying to piece everything together into a larger context. So I’ve designed the workshop so people should get a feel of what is possible and they will definitely be able to make a beautiful map by the end of it.
Beth: Thank you very much!
If you haven’t registered for Digital Odyssey 2015 yet, there is still time! Come listen to Mita and others talk about open data, open heritage.
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