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October 15 2011

International Open Government Data Camp looks to build community

There's a growing international movement afoot worldwide to open up government data and make something useful with it. Civic apps based upon open data are emerging that genuinely serve citizens in a beneficial ways that officials may have not been able to deliver, particularly without significant time or increased expense.

For every civic app, however, there's a backstory that often involves a broad number of stakeholders. Governments have to commit to open up themselves but will in many cases need external expertise or even funding to do so. Citizens, industry and developers have to use the data, demonstrating that there's not only demand but skill outside of government to put open data to work in the service of accountability, citizen utility and economic opportunity. Galvanizing the co-creation of civic services, policies or apps isn't easy but the potential of the civic surplus attracted the attention of governments around the world.

The approach will not be a silver bullet to all of society's ills, given high unemployment, economic uncertainty or high healthcare or energy costs -- but an increasing number of states are standing up platforms and stimulating an app economy. Given the promise of leaner, smarter government that focuses upon providing open data to fuel economic activity, tough, results-oriented mayors like Rahm Emanuel and Mike Bloomberg are committing to opening Chicago and open government data in NYC.

A key ingredient in successful open government data initiatives is community. It's not enough to simply release data and hope that venture capitalists and developers magically become aware of the opportunity to put it to work. Marketing open government data is what has brought federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and HHS CTO Todd Park repeatedly out to Silicon Valley, New York City and other business and tech hubs. The civic developer and startup community is participating in creating a new distributed ecosystem, from BuzzData to Socrata to new efforts like Max Ogden's DataCouch.

As with other open source movements, people interested in open data are self-organizing and, in many cases, are using the unconference model to do so. Over the past decade, camps have sprung up all around the U.S. and, increasingly, internationally, from Asia to India to Europe Africa to South America. Whether they're called techcamps, barcamps, citycamps or govcamps, these forums are giving advocates, activists, civic media, citizens and public officials to meet, exchange ideas, code and expertise.

Next week, the second International Open Government Data Camp will pull together all of those constituencies in Warsaw, Poland to talk about the future of open data. Attendees will be able to learn from plenary keynotes from open data leaders and tracks full of sessions with advocates, activists and technologists. Satellite events around OGD Camp will also offer unstructured time for people to meet, mix, connect and create. You can watch a short film about open government data from the Open Knowledge Foundation below:

To learn more about what attendees should expect, I conducted an email interview with Jonathan Gray, the community coordinator for the Open Knowledge Foundation. For more on specific details about the camp, consult the FAQ at Gray offered more context on open government data at the Guardian this past week:

It's been over five years since the Guardian launched its influential Free Our Data campaign. Nearly four years ago Rufus Pollock coined the phrase "Raw Data Now" which web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee later transformed into the slogan for a global movement. And that same year a group of 30 open government advocates met in Sebastopol, California and drafted a succinct text on open government data which has subsequently been echoed and encoded in official policy and legislative documents around the world.

In under half a decade, open data has found its way into digital policy packages and transparency initiatives all over the place - from city administrations in Berlin, Paris and New York, to the corridors of supranational institutions like the European Commission or the World Bank. In the past few years we've seen a veritable abundance of portals and principles, handbooks and hackdays, promises and prizes.

But despite this enthusiastic and energetic reception, open data has not been without its setbacks and there are still huge challenges ahead. Earlier this year there were reports that will have its funding slashed. In the UK there are concerns that the ominously titled "Public Data Corporation" may mean that an increasing amount of data is locked down and sold to those who can afford to pay for it. And in most countries around the world most documents and datasets are still published with ambiguous or restrictive legal conditions, which inhibit reuse. Public sector spending cuts and austerity measures in many countries will make it harder for open data to rise up priority lists.

Participants at this year's camp will swap notes on how to overcome some of these obstacles, as well as learning about how to set up and run an open data initiative (from the people behind and other national catalogues), how to get the legal and technical details right, how to engage with data users, how to run events, hackdays, competitions, and lots more.

What will this camp change?

We want to build a stronger international community of people interested in open data - so people can swap expertise, anecdotes and bits of code. In particular we want to get public servants talking to each other about how to set up an open data initiative, and to make sure that developers, journalists NGOs and others are included in the process.

What did the last camp change?

Many of the participants from the 2010 camp came away enthused with ideas, contacts and energy that has catalysed and informed the development of open data around the world. For example, groups of citizens booted up grassroots open data meetups in several places, public servants set up official initiatives on the back of advice and discussions from the camp, developers started local versions of projects they liked, and so on.

Why does this matter to the tech community?

Public data is a fertile soil out of which the next generation of digital services and applications will grow. It may take a while for technologies and processes to get there, but eventually we hope open data will be ubiquitous and routine.

Why does it matter to the art, design, music, business or nonprofit community?

Journalists need to be able to navigate public information sources, from official documents and transcripts to information on the environment or the economy. Rather than relying on press releases and policy reports, they should be able to have some grasp of the raw information sources upon which these things depend - so they can make up their own mind, and do their own analysis and evaluation. There's a dedicated satellite event on data journalism at the camp, focusing on looking at where EU spending goes.

Similarly, NGOs, think tanks, and community groups should be able to utilise public data to improve their research, advocacy or outreach. Being more literate about data sources, and knowing how to use them in combination will existing free tools and services can be a very powerful way to put arguments into context, or to communicate issues they care about more effectively. This will be a big theme in this year's camp.

Why does it matter to people who have never heard of open data?

Our lives are increasingly governed by data. Having basic literacy about how to use the information around is is important for all sorts of things, from dealing with major global problems to making everyday decisions. In response to things like climate change, the financial crisis, or disease outbreaks, governments must share information with each other and with the public, to respond effectively and to keep citizens informed. We depend on having up-to-date information to plan our journeys, locate public facilities close to see how our taxes are spent.

What are the outcomes that matter from such an event?

We are hoping to build consensus around a set of legal principles for open data so key stakeholders around the world come to a more explicit and formal agreement about under what terms open data should be published (as liberal as possible!). And we'll be working on, which aims to be a comprehensive directory of open data catalogues from around the world curated for and by the open data community.

We also hope that some key open data projects will be ported and transplanted to different countries. Perhaps most importantly, we hope that (like last year) the discussions and workshops that take place will give a big boost to open data around the world, and people will continue to collaborate online after the camp.

How is OGD Camp going to be different from other events?

It looks like it will be the biggest open data event to date. We have representation from dozens and dozens of countries around the world. There will be a strong focus on getting things done. We're really excited!

May 12 2011

Parsing a new Pew report: 3 ways the Internet is shaping healthcare

On balance, people report being helped by the health information they find online, not harmed. While social networking sites are not a significant source of health information for online users, they do provide a source of encouragement and offer community for caregivers and patients. One quarter of online users have looked at drug reviews online, with some 38% of caregivers doing so. One quarter of online users have watched a video about health. And a new kind of digital divide is growing between users who have access to mobile broadband and those who do not.

Those are just a few of the insights from a new survey on the social life of health information from the Pew Internet and Life Project. The results shed new light on how the online world is using the Internet to gather and share health data.

The Internet has disrupted how, where, when and what information we can gather and share about ourselves, one another and the conditions that we suffer from. Following are three key trends that reflect how the Internet is changing healthcare.

Health IT at OSCON 2011 — The conjunction of open source and open data with health technology promises to improve creaking infrastructure and give greater control and engagement for patients. These topics will be explored in the healthcare track at OSCON (July 25-29 in Portland, Ore.)

Save 20% on registration with the code OS11RAD

The quantified self

As Edd Dumbill observed here at Radar last year, network-connected sensors that track your fitness can increasingly be seen on city streets, gyms and wrists. Gary Wolfe has likened the growth of the quantified self to the evolution of personal computing in the 1980s.

The trend toward a data-driven life that Wolfe describes as the quantified self is no longer the domain of elite athletes or math geeks. Fully one quarter of online users are tracking their health data online, according to Pew's survey. "The Quantified Self and PatientsLikeMe are the cutting-edge of that trend, but our study shows that it may be a broader movement than previously thought," said Susannah Fox, Associate Director of Digital Strategy for the Pew Internet Project.

Carol Torgan, a health science strategist cited in the report, has shared further analysis of self-tracking. "Self-tracking is extremely widespread," writes Torgan. "In addition to all the organized tracking communities, there’s a growing number of organic self-tracking communities. For examples, take a look at the diabetes made visible community on Flickr, or the more than 20,000 videos on YouTube tagged weight loss journey."

Below, Gary Wolf delivers a TED Talk on the quantified self:

Participatory medicine

Another trend that jumps out from this report is the rise of e-patients, where peer-to-peer healthcare complements the traditional doctor-to-patient relationship. While health professionals were the number one source of health information cited in this survey, the Internet is a significant source for 80% of online users.

We're entering an age of participatory medicine, where patients can learn more about their doctors, treatments, drugs and the experiences of others suffering from their conditions than ever before. Twenty-five percent of American adults have read the comments of another patients online. Twenty-three percent of Internet users that are living with at least one of five of the chronic conditions named in the survey have searched online for someone that shared their condition.

Online forums where people voluntarily share data about symptoms, environmental conditions, sources of infection, mechanics of injury or other variables continue to grow, and there are now dozens of other social media health websites to explore. As Claire Cain Miller wrote in the New York Times last year, online social networks bridge gaps for the chronically ill. And as Stephanie Clifford wrote in 2009, online communities can provide support for elderly patients who are isolated by geography.

"These networks provide sense of distributed community, where you can find others who suffer from your condition and support for treatment," said Fox. "PatientsLikeMe is example of that."

PatientsLikeMe, in fact, recently published the results of a patient-driven clinical trial in Nature, the first such study in a major journal. Fox shared further thoughts on mapping the frontier of healthcare at

The online conversation about health is being driven forward by two forces:  1) the availability of social tools and 2) the motivation, especially among people living with chronic conditions, to connect with each other. Pew Internet has identified two important trends in our data. One is what we call the "mobile difference" — hand someone a smartphone and they become more social online, more likely to share, more likely to contribute, not just consume information.

The other is what we call the "diagnosis difference" — holding all other demographic characteristics constant we find that having a chronic disease significantly increases an Internet user's likelihood to say they both contribute and consume user-generated content related to health. They are learning from each other, not just from institutions.

This trend emphasizes the link between health literacy, media literacy and digital literacy. When citizens search for information about health online, they're presented with a dizzying array of choices, including targeted advertising, sponsored blog posts, advertorials and online forums. One area where this will be particularly challenging is in pharmaceutical information. More open data about pharmaceuticals released by open government projects like Pillbox inject trustworthy information into the Internet ecosystem, as users searching for aspirin will find. However, the United States Food and Drug Administration has still not issued any official guidance for the use of social media by the industry. Given the growing percentage of caregivers and those suffering from chronic disease that are searching for information about drugs, such guidance may be overdue.

As the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action grows, its ability to connect fellow travelers will become increasingly important. As Clay Shirky observed in January, "we have historically overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to one another."

A new digital divide

Internet access is information access. Citizens who are not online are by definition on the other side of the digital divide. In the 21st century, however, a data-driven life is also profoundly mobile.

According to the Pew Internet survey, 18% of wireless Internet users are tracking their own healthcare data, twice as many as those who do not have a wireless-enabled device. Open health data can spur better decisions for mobile users if they have access to a smartphone or tablet and the Internet. Without it, not so much.

"The difference that we see is in the mobile space," said Fox. "It's a younger demographic, and connected to that it's more diverse. When you look at who is accessing the Internet on their smartphone and has apps, you're likely to see a more diverse population. That's the promise of mobile health: that it will reach different audiences. And yet, these are not the audiences that are in the most need of health information. If you look at the numbers of people with disability or chronic disease, mobile is not closing that gap."

Fox spoke about the promise of mobile and the new digital divide at Transform 2010:

It's no secret that the ability to pay for data plans and smartphones is correlated with socioeconomic class status. Access to hardware may change as inexpensive Android devices continue to enter the market. According to ComScore, as of January 2011, 65.8 million Americans owned a smartphone, out of a total of 234 million users ages 13 and older. If 20% of those users switch over the course of this year, smartphone penetration will be just shy of 50%. That doesn't address the needs of those without access to broadband Internet. Simply having a smartphone and connection, however, doesn't result in the information literacy and health literacy needed to apply these tools.

That's a lot to ask of citizens, who will need well-designed healthcare apps to help them make sense of the data deluge. Given spiraling healthcare costs, however, the future of healthcare looks like it's in the palms of our hands.


December 09 2010

Strata Week: Running the numbers

Here's what caught my attention in the data world this week.

It all comes down to funding

Fifty million. That's the number of dollars investors have committed to IA Ventures, a New York City-based fund dedicated to big data tools and technology start-ups. It's quite an impressive number for a first-time fund in any economic conditions, let alone the current climate.

So how did they do it? Check out founder Roger Ehrenberg's recent blog post, in which he provides a behind-the-scenes look at his experience, including things he wishes he'd done differently. It's a nice picture of what it's like to change careers, start a fund, and learn from experience.

MathJax: Delicious and nutritious

Strata 2011Ever had a thought that couldn't be expressed in words? Wanted to put that thought on the web? MathJax, an open source JavaScript display engine for mathematical equations, makes that easier (and much more beautiful) across most browsers.

A project of the American Mathematical Society, Design Science, Inc., and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, MathJax provides top-notch mathematical typesetting without the need for special downloads or plugins. Authors can submit math content in a variety of formats (such as MathML or LaTeX), and feel confident of its proper display even in browsers that don't have native MathML support.

TeX samples, MathML samples, and scaling samples can be found on the MathJax demo page. Here's a neat screencast of how users can copy and paste equations into various applications (such as Mathematica) using MathJax:

The MathJax source code is here, and further documentation can be found here.


Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kevin Drum's "Statistical Zombies" post should be required reading for anyone who ever has, or will, pick up a newspaper. In it, he deftly highlights "the top ten mistakes that infest day-to-day reporting of numerical and statistical information."

Error rates, inflation adjustment, and the distinction between correlation and causation are just some of the important data literacy principles Drum points out. Think you're pretty statistics savvy? Take a read and see if you don't learn (or recall) something.

For more fun, check out Lori Alden's example set of 12 misleading charts and statistics. Can you identify the blunders?

The fine line between tragedy and numbers

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last few weeks (and, given the madness of the holiday season, I wouldn't blame you), you've probably been following the WikiLeaks excitement in the news. The abundance of commentary on that issue need not be rehashed here, but Paul Bradshaw's take bears mentioning.

In his Online Journalism Blog, Bradshaw explores the difficulty of bringing big datasets to a human scale in journalistic terms, and explains, "when you move beyond scales we can deal with on a human level, you struggle to engage people in the issue you are covering."

His proposed solution is a kind of non-visual visualization, otherwise know as the anecdote. Human narratives can help us connect to data, to see it in a sympathetic way. Bradshaw stresses that personal stories must be carefully selected so they remain representative of the larger trend. He cautions that the intricacies of a larger dataset may not be revealed in the tales of individuals.

Industrial scale journalism using "big data" in a networked age raises new problems and new opportunities: we need to humanise and personalise big datasets in a way that does not detract from the complexity or scale of the issues being addressed; and we need to think about what happens after someone reads a story online and whether online publishers have a role in that.

Sometimes, it's about more than just the numbers.

The Strata Conference is coming

Fifty-three: that's how many days are left before the inaugural Strata Conference! Register now and join us in February.

Save 30% on Strata registration with the code STR11RAD.

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