Open Data: Is Sharing, Caring?

There’s an old story about four blind men who are presented with an elephant. Each man tries to describe the animal to the others. The first, grabbing the trunk, tells the others that elephants are long and snake-like. Immediately the second man disagrees – he has hold of a leg and thinks that the animals are broad, like tree trunks. “You’re all wrong” the third man says. He is standing near the tail and so thinks elephants are thin and ropey. The fourth man, standing by an ear, laughs and explains that, actually, elephants are long and flat, like a sail. The lesson is that all four men are both correct and incorrect – they need to learn to share their findings to get the most accurate picture.

Data is raw information. In the age of computers it is easy to start thinking of it simply as a series of 1s and 0s, in terms of how much of it you have left on your phone, but in this haze of digitalisation we forget how truly broad the definition of data is. It’s your height. It’s that bees have wings. It’s that cockroaches descended from trilobites. Everything can be broken down and classified in numbers and facts. And all of us are collecting and collating data all the time, using it like puzzle pieces to create a bigger picture.

image of laptop with green graph plotted on it

The phrase ‘open data’ can be misleading. It conjures up images of personal data being released. It makes us think about our medical information or chat logs being put on the internet for all to see. We confuse “open” with “exposed” and feel that our privacy is being threatened. However the recent open data movement has been about making non-personal data available online through an open license such as Creative Commons licensing. This flexible licensing and open data means that the community can use the data to build apps or create innovative visualisations. An example dataset might be the council’s waste collection data that can be used to build an app to know when your waste or recycling bin will be collected.

There has recently also been the Australia’s controversial data retention laws. Although open data and data retention laws involve the word ‘data’, they are fundamentally two separate ideas. The recent controversy about changes to data retention laws in Australia stems from anger about the collection of data that users might otherwise prefer to remain private, and concerns about what this data may be used for.  Open data, however, is specifically defined by the Open Data Handbook to be “A piece of data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse and redistribute it – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike” . Data can be gathered in a multitude of ways; in formal scientific studies, in surveys, in the census, or by plain observation. Data retention is a specific method of gathering data while open data is about how existing data is used and shared for public good.   

This week, the City of Melbourne is releasing its latest CLUE (Census of Land Use and Employment) open data set. The CLUE data gives all Melbournians a big picture understanding of our city, outlining growth in jobs, residential spaces, retail and economic development.

“This CLUE report demonstrates the importance of Melbourne’s status as a knowledge city, with more than a quarter of the new jobs (25,400 positions) in the past ten years created in professional, scientific and technical services,” says Lord Mayor Robert Doyle.

Many hands make light work, and having data in the public domain means that more people will have access to raw information. Data about weather can help with disaster planning in case of future crises. Data about health issues in conjunction with seemingly unconnected lifestyle factors can lead to connections being made that otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Some examples of how CLUE open data is/can potentially be used:

  • Help small businesses decide on the best location for their new shop, café or office.
  • Disaster planning – helps emergency services to understand how workers are distributed throughout the city during a typical day.
  • Assist developers understand the context of a site they are proposing to develop – how many dwellings, car parking spaces, shopping centres, and retail outlets currently exist in the immediate area?

While collection of data is its own complex beast, the movement supporting the idea of sharing the data we have so that more minds can work on using it to its greatest effect makes sense. There’s a story that pops up on the internet every now and again – it tells how NASA poured millions of dollars into developing an anti-gravity pen for astronauts to use, while the Russians simply used pencils. Despite being completely untrue (pencils are unsafe in space – their tips can break off and cause damage, plus they’re a fire risk) it’s a neat example of how a fresh perspective can offer new solutions.

No matter what group projects may have led us to believe, it isn’t necessarily true that “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” No, sharing doesn’t always mean caring, but the fact remains that there is always going to be someone who sees an entirely different use for a specific set of information. Or, by having more information open to the public, connections can be made between data-sets that otherwise might have remained discrete if kept private.

The four men standing around the elephant have three options. The first is that they can stubbornly insist that their information is the only correct information, thus everybody loses. The second is that they can each do four times the work, moving around the animal and feeling more of it themselves (and, presumably, increase their risk of getting stamped on). The final option is that they can listen to each other, and realise that their first thoughts were only a small part of the bigger picture.

Explore more of  City of Melbourne’s Open Data here.

Written by Elizabeth Flux