Open Data: Powering the Information Age

Technology Visionaries RAEng lecture series

Wednesday 22 February 2012, the Royal Society, London

By Claire Thorne and Koen van Dam

Unsure of how many notable FREng’s to expect in the audience, we arrived at the Royal Society (the current base for the RAEng during their refurbishment). With twenty-four FREng’s on the delegate list, including one on stage, we weren’t disappointed (but possibly just a little underdressed!).

The lecture by Prof Nigel Shadbolt FREng (Prof of Artificial Intelligence, University of Southampton) was part of the RAEng’s Technology Visionaries series and promised a whistle-stop tour through the vast topic that is Open Data.

Presenting in his current Government role as co-director of the Open Data Institute (ODI) [pdf] (along with WWW inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee) Nigel set the scene by highlighting the historical significance of data (c.f. the Copernican revolution and the realisation that cholera is spread by contaminated water). He went on to sail through current innovation and the big issues surrounding: open data, smart cities, linked open data (and his 5-star rating for the release and structuring of data, open standards, unique resource identifiers and linking data) the latest UK Government developments, and data visualisation.

Open Data and the power of the crowd

Nigel illustrated the power of open data using the standard examples of:
•    the Government’s open data initiative and the website;
•    the London DataStore (“open the data and the apps will follow”);
•    the variety of ways Ordnance Survey’s OpenData is already being utilised;
•    the exercise of producing a Postcode Paper, with content generated using illegally reproduced, but so-called ‘open’ Government data (preceding the website).

One of his more inspiring examples of using open data for real-world societal and often unexpected impact was the mapping of earthquake-hit Port-au-Prince. Within days of the earthquake, the first detailed map of the city was produced for Open Street Map, via the power of the crowd. Open data does not just work one way, for people to consume; it also allows members of the general public to contribute and to improve data sets.

Open Data and smart cities

There was some mention of research on smart cities and, in particular, reference to UCL’s research in this area, the CASA group headed up by Prof Michael Batty. Nigel suggested that cities were one of the clearest examples of places where open data is collected and used.

The evolution of the humble mash-up through to complex data visualisation was demonstrated by examples of a UK crime heat map as well as combining data-sets on cycle hire and pollution. If you’re looking for a striking example of how this can impact our lives, check out the local crime and policing website, for England and Wales. Thanks to the ‘opening up’ of data on this platform (and therefore the plethora of opportunities for useful applications to be built on top of the data which followed) police officers now have a better view of crime, than they had of the same data set while it was closed.

For anyone interested in open data and cities, that the UK’s first Open-Data Cities Conference will be taking place in Brighton on 20 April 2012.

The web of linked open data

Nigel discussed the concept of the semantic web, thought to be the next step forwards from the WWW in which documents (and data) are linked – but now in a way that is ‘computer-understandable’. The more recent view of this concept is to consider instead a web of data. In principle it’s the same idea as the semantic web, but the web of data better captures the concept of interlinked sets of data. The DBpedia project is a clear example of how data from the better-known ‘-edia’, Wikipedia, can be structured, categorised and interlinked. Nigel showed us a graph of the network effect of such structured data, where more and more resources can be linked, greatly improving the power of the whole.

Note that the lecture’s URI is to be confirmed…

Citizen Science

The field of citizen science – the seemingly limitless opportunities it offers the public to engage with technology and repurpose data, and for creative design and education – is an area Nigel referred to during the Q&A as particularly exciting. Although he had little time to go into this in detail, he did flash up a slide featuring the Galaxy Zoo iPhone App (based on the success of Galaxy Zoo) during the lecture… co-developed by a former colleague from Imperial College London’s Astro group, Dr Joe Zuntz!

The latest UK Government developments

Nigel raised new infrastructure requirements and issues of security and privacy amongst his concerns, or indeed areas to focus on, for the future (c.f. a book Nigel co-authored The Spy in the Coffee Machine: The End of Privacy as We Know It).

Following on from issues of security and privacy, the BIS ‘midata’ project is working with retailers, telecomms and energy companies to explore issues surrounding the use and control of individual’s personal data. The midata aim is to return the economic value of the individual’s data back to the consumers. (Note the synergies with Digital City Exchange’s research and our focus on new business opportunities, jobs and growth).

Who’s the ‘winner’ of open data?

It was unfortunate that the evening’s ‘in conversation with’ part focused more on the future challenge for the UK education system in equipping employees with the necessary technology/logical-thinking skills, and less on Nigel’s ‘vision’ of the future of data, its use(s) and its potential impacts.

Nigel was however given the chance to elaborate on the impact of his vision when he was asked ‘who would be the winner of open data?’. He argued that the ‘winner’ is not only the governments who receive direct input from citizens and the “free” applications built on top of government data sets. He said the ‘winner’ is not only the businesses who can make better-informed decisions. He said the ‘winner’ is not only the people who get access to information which wasn’t previously available to them (and are therefore demanding/implementing greater transparency). Nigel said that all parties involved would benefit.

Of course the issue of privacy was addressed as it is hard to avoid in this context, but his enthusiasm and belief that this is the right path are both infectious and convincing. Unfortunately Nigel could not yet answer the question how all of this would affect research, but that is a challenge for us digital economy researchers to take home.

Watch Nigel’s lecture online: In the spirit of all things open, view the talk online.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for forthcoming lectures in the Technology Visionaries series – see you there!

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