Open Data .. has .. recently .. been.. all .. over .. the .. blog .. o .. sphere!

Openness is a classic Us-and-Them issue. Big, nasty Apple/MySpace/Flickr is trying to control what little me/SingleStatus/Zoomr can do with my/our own stuff.

Open Data vs. Closed; Open Source vs. Proprietary; P2P vs. DRM; privacy vs. surveillance. The battles between the freedom of the pioneer, the individual and the minority against the rules and stability of the establishment and the majority form the endless shape of human history.

Us beating Them is Hollywood's favourite subject on-screen - and ironically Them fighting Us Hollywood's favourite battle off-screen.

As an Us-and-Them issue, with Us less powerful than Them, it's also tempting to give up and to follow the crowd - to do what we're told, to not ask for or sieze the privacy and open data we feel entitled to.

However, at XTech 2006 recently, there was a set of talks on the subject with a more positive approach.

Ignorance Is Not A Defence

I'm counted amongst the 'founding members' of the UK's Open Rights Group, having signed the pledge in PledgeBank. So I was delighted to see Suw Charman's name on the XTech programme.

Suw gave a talk about the issues they/we are tackling: ISPs and Telcos tracking our traffic, DRM controlling our media and even our computers, ID cards, Patents, various government schemes to undermine our privacy, Copyright extension, Trusted Computing, etc., etc.

Read about the issues, then join the group (or the EFF, etc., depending on where you live).


OpenStreetMap: The First Year

Now, this was cool. I'll start right off by noting that they have a REST API, not a STREST API..

And it just gets better from there.. OpenStreetMap is like a Geo Wiki of GPS trails around the world. The centre of London was mapped by attaching GPS devices to couriers and plotting the slug-trails they left behind. Steve Coast showed an animation of a day's tracking. The trails shot off to various points out of town at the end of the day. But the animation continued..

And at pub closing time, another burst of trails as the couriers came home!

A few weeks ago, a crowd of OpenStreetMap volunteers descended on the Isle of Wight in England to walk around mapping it. The enthusiasm generated by this project seems likely to give it enough momentum that it will very soon be good enough for us to use for real. A complete, reliable dataset created by the people, for the people, unencumbered by copyright and restrictive licensing.

I suggested an idea I had about five years ago in my dot-com days: let people upload mobile-snapped pictures with GPS coordinates attached. Central servers scan the pictures for text and OCR them into a searchable database.

People would snap-and-upload their own street name signs, house name plaques, shop fronts, station name signs, company office signs, etc. Even menus in the local restaurant. We could construct a 'GeoGoogle' of public, mappable, searchable text.

However, Steve told me that OCR and mobile GPS technology still isn't up to it; that manual tagging of GPS trails is enough to make OpenStreetMap work well. Ah well, I've waited five years, so I can wait a bit longer...

Slides, MP3 here.


An Open (Data) Can of Worms

Paul Hammond (ex-BBC, Yahoo!) gave a good talk on how to motivate companies to open up their data to the Mashable Data Web, hopefully through nice shiny new Web 2.0 APIs.

Here's your takeaway quote courtesy of Suw Charman's amazing typing:

  • Be aware of the problems
  • Demonstrate usefulness, screen scrape if you need to, but don't get yourself cease-and-desisted
  • Don't assume it's a technology problem
  • Target the right people, find someone on the inside who can help you
  • Talk about benefits to the provider, not the consumer. If you talk about the benefits to you, they'll see you just as someone who wants something for free.
  • Have patience. It is getting better every day, and it takes time for business to come round.

The Data Web will be created mostly from the edges, but the middle should be encouraged to see the benefits, too.


Native to a Web of Data: Designing a Part of the Aggregate Web

Yahoo! had a big presence at XTech - as did the BBC - and this Yahoo! - and ex-BBC - presenter was Tom Coates.

Tom's talk extended the previous one of his colleague, Paul Hammond, by going over some principles of opening data and helping build the Data Web.

Principles such as finding data sources, giving them nice representations and URLs then distributing them in a most accessible and navigable way.

A bit Web 1.0, in truth; he looked rather blankly at me when I suggested adding some concept of data events or updates to his list of data-opening principles.

Again, Suw has this written up (actually, a better-looking version of the same talk from FoWA).

Oh - here's a good article by Tom on the power of pointability


Harnessing the Collective

All of these talks had a positive spin on the Us-and-Them issue.

We can do something about the creeping imbalance of Digital Rights, tipping slowly but persistently from Us to Them.

Web 2.0 and the Social Software it underpins can actually empower those of us that are willing to use it.

As taxpayers, voters, shareholders, pensionholders, customers and employees, we really do own and control Them. We are just one Social Networking movement away from realising that - in both senses of the word.

So: stop staring at YouTube, sign up to your local Digital Rights organisation, get out on your bike with your GPS, understand and talk nicely to that unenlightened, data hoarding corporation and start a bottom-up revolution to take back control over your own data...

Above all, design your systems to put Open Data at the top of your list of priorities...