Sunday, June 10, 2012

Playing with Data

With computers came data, and a whole new generation of data hounds who love to play with it. I'll give you a taste of what can be done with big data which has generated new appetite for raw, unfiltered data. One can make a vivid graphical display that tells a new story, an app that revolutionizes how work is done, or a new way for the public to access services. The data hounds are targeting municipalities for the opportunities there, but close around the corner is other levels of government and big business. This new hunger for data has spawned the Open Data movement. Others are working on disentangling copyright issues (Open Data Commons) to make big data more available.

Vivid Graphics

With 3D modelling and timeline software, graphs have inherent beauty of their own. When they tell a story, they are even more compelling. Artist Aaron Koblin takes vast amounts of data ...and weaves them into stunning visualizations. His work takes real world and community-generated data and uses it to reflect on cultural trends and the changing relationship between humans and technology.

Hans Rosling of the nonprofit GapMinder is using descriptive graphics to illustrate the potential for social change. His findings may surprise you.

Great Apps

With the availability of real time, reliable, raw data - as it relates to what people are doing - when and where they are doing it - and how many people are doing it - has led to some slick applications. The application SeeClickFix allows citizens to post pics of fixes for their community. The city acquires a legion of eyes on the ground, allowing them to spend more time prioritizing, planning, and fixing. The software tracks performance, adding transparency and accountability to city services.

Code for America, another nonprofit, is made up of web geeks, city experts, and technology industry leaders. They are building a network of civic leaders and organizations who believe there is a better way of doing things and want to make a difference. One app that is now in use in four major centres in the US, allows citizens to adopt fire hydrants buried in winter snowstorms.

A recent open data challenge resulted in a real-time map, showing the location of all trains on the London underground.

The demands from this community is for real-time linkages to existing managed databases. The data must be current and accurate.

Business Analytics

As an aside, IBM is supporting big business through their Advanced Analytics to mine the masses of unstructured data they have at their fingertips. We have no lack of information in this new age. What is missing is the talent to interpret the great masses of information in to comprehensive models and graphics so we can learn their story. I believe that there is an untapped talent of data hounds who know how to ask the right questions and leverage that information to new insights about business, customers and the environment.

Openness - Privacy Threat?

While data hounds call for open access, the public is ever more aware of their privacy rights. People rightly want to be informed when information about them is being requested by third parties. This creates new tensions, as data by its nature is fluid. It is easy to grant access.  As we browse the internet for instance, our hits and habits are tracked by literally hundreds of entities. Gary Kovacs has created a Firefox add-on that tracks the trackers.

While it is easy to share, it is much harder to parse information to satisfy privacy requests. That's not to mean we it is impossible to put the appropriate safeguards in place, or that we should reject all requests for greater data access.

The public can be surprisingly open, however, when asked for their permission. Just this past week, British Columbians expressed their willingness to share masses of historical health information, to provide the opportunity for new insights. All they ask is that the information be protected so that it cannot be tracked back to the individual. Read more, "Survey shows B.C. health database could be a wellspring for researchers - 80 per cent of British Columbians onside to share their information — but only anonymously".

In Summary

There is a new generation of data hounds who have new skills of data manipulation and graphical representation that can help us make better decisions and support direct civic involvement to solve problems. 

Their demands are for open, unfettered access to reliable data that are typically managed by government. Along with these demands for more openness, the public wants assurances that their personal information is protected. This complicates sharing, but does not prohibit it. As records professionals, recognize that these new demands to data are coming. Be aware that personal information must be protected either through anonymizers or presentation of aggregate data.