Thursday, March 17, 2011

Open Data and the Information Manager

The 1995 movie, "Lorenzo's Oil" tells the true story of a father who desperately searched for a cure for his son's (Lorenzo) terminal disease, Adrenoleucodystrophy (ALD). At the time, sufferers did not live past five years. Augusto Odone scoured the local medical library for answers and sponsored a medical conference to bring together experts in the field. It was at the conference that he first found a glimmer of hope. An oil - oleic acid - was able to destroy long string fatty acids, Lorenzo's Oil. Young Lorenzo lived in to his thirties, passing away in 2008. The oil is used to treat asymptomatic boys with ALD and has been shown to prevent the disease from taking hold.

For the sake of my topic, I'm focusing on the value of bringing together experts and information. I'll discuss the value of privacy controls another day. With the advent of the internet, we have even greater opportunities to share discoveries. Hence, the open science data movement.

The idea is to freely share without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. The internet by design fosters sharing. Ever since it's explosion, however, controls have been developed to prevent unauthorized disclosure. When it comes to my personal banking information, I fully agree. But it could be argued that these restrictions do not fit well where we can benefit from free and open sharing of information.

"Numerous scientists have pointed out the irony that right at the historical moment when we have the technologies to permit worldwide availability and distributed process of scientific data, broadening collaboration and accelerating the pace and depth of discovery…..we are busy locking up that data and preventing the use of correspondingly advanced technologies on knowledge [1]

Here is open scientific data that I have sourced in th epast:

African Plant Database: (learning more about my beloved sprouting Gazania)
The database currently comprises 1,86,948 names of african plants with their nomenclatural statuts. Data capture, edition and broadcast are the product of a collaboration between the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the Conservatoire et Jardin botaniques de la Ville de Genève, Tela Botanica and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

 ...trusted digital archive of over one thousand academic journals and other scholarly content. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship...

In other realms, we have Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg saying that privacy is "no longer a social norm" and a movement for open data of government information. I think it is no accident that is is the data community pushing for these reforms. These are the master-chefs of information, itching make new use of these rich sources. To be clear, open data is far more than publishing reports and final results. These new data-chefs want access to the raw data to manipulate and present in new forms.

Here in Canada, the open data movement has sponsored Change Camps and convinced the City of Vancouver to provide open data. It was at a Change Camp here in Edmonton that I was first made aware of the Open Data movement. The City of Edmonton provides raw transit information to google, for instance. Mobile Edmonton travellers can now plan routes through google. There are American examples how new open data applications are improving government. Microsoft has sponsored a competition to find new uses of Vancouver's data, like Vantrash to help users schedule and track their trash days.

An additional benefit of open data is to improve openness and transparency of government activities to the public. Where there is openness there is trust. For instance, I found an online air quality index for a neighbour concerned about a bad smell. I follow the blogs of Paul Levy, former CEO of a Boston Hospital and advocate for transparency of clinical outomes,. The Japanese government has taken some criticism this week for not being more forthcoming on developments at the failing nuclear plant. Open, honest and timely information reduces public anxiety.

Organizations are meeting he challenge of open data without infringing on rights. The international Open Data Commons has developed a set of licensing standards that an author can cite to protect their interests while providing free and open use of their data. The Commons has also provided definitions and principles to guide the open data movement:

"The Open Knowledge Definition (OKD) sets out principles to define ‘openness’ in knowledge – that’s any kind of content or data ‘from sonnets to statistics, genes to geodata’. The definition can be summed up in the statement that “A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.”

Why bother about openness and licensing for data? After all they don’t matter in themselves: what we really care about are things like the progress of human knowledge or the freedom to understand and share.

However, open data is crucial to progress on these more fundamental items. It’s crucial because open data is so much easier to break-up and recombine, to use and reuse. We therefore want people to have incentives to make their data open and for open data to be easily usable and reusable — i.e. for open data to form a ‘commons’."

The Open Data Commons gives a special mention to government data:
"Open government data and content is material that is:
  • “Open” as defined by this site’s Open Definition– in essence material (data) is open if it can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone.
  • Produced or commissioned by government or government controlled entities."
In 2007, American advocates have developed eight principles of Open Government, and here in Canada, Open Data proponents are calling for the resolution of issues around licensing. In the realm familiar to Information Managers, the eighth principle of GARP is Transparency (A counterbalance to the third Principle of Protection).

In Alberta, the principle of open government is balanced against the citizen's right to privacy in the FOIP Act [2]. Most people are familiar with their privacy rights in this legislation, but the Act also allows open access to government information (sections 2 and 6)

"The purposes of this Act allow any person a right of access to the records in the custody or under the control of a public body subject to limited and specific exceptions as set out in this Act... An applicant has a right of access to any record in the custody or under the control of a public body, including a record containing personal information about the applicant."

Our Information and Privacy Commissioner has spoken of openness and transparency during Right to Know week. At a seminar that same week, the City of Edmonton spoke of the benefits of routinely disclosing public information. Our snow removal crews took a big hit this winter, but I found their online schedule and status updates did a lot to relieve my concerns. I had a bet going with my husband if our "arterial" would be cleared by deadline, and it was.

So there you have it. For oppenness in information as mundane as trash days, to clinical outcomes in our health care systems, open data fosters collaboration, informs in new ways, and builds trust. As an information manager, keep an eye out for data sets of information that is already routinely disclosed in other formats. Introduce the principles of open data to your clients, and give examples how open data can improve transparency for their organization.

[1] John Wilbanks, Executive Director, Science Commons
[2] Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Alberta, F-25)