Free access to data: a (non-boring) story about open data

It’s not uncommon to receive a blank and slightly bored expression after asking someone if they know what Open Data is. For anyone who doesn’t work in this burgeoning industry (by way of disclosure, this was a tribe to which I very recently belonged) the mere mention of “data” starts eyes glazing. Sometimes there’s a glimmer of interest when it’s mentioned that the value of Open Data is currently estimated at over $3 trillion, and sometimes people latch onto the idea of unprecedented government transparency, but by and large people don’t really seem to get it, in much the same way that 25 years ago people didn’t get why on earth you’d bother sending mail electronically.

But the reality is that Open Data – freely accessed machine-readable information (mostly, at least currently, government data) – is probably already a part of your life.

Just because it’s open, doesn’t mean it’s usable!

In recent years, governments of every size and scope have started launching Open Data portals (repository sites for data). But, because this movement is relatively new, they’re often doing it in any number of different ways in any number of different formats. ThinkData Works pulls together these disparate puddles and pools of data into one site, Namara.io, where it is made available in simple, machine-readable formats.

Since these portals aren’t standardized, it’s great to have Import.io in our toolkit. Import’s easy functionality and clean extraction help bring even the most uncooperative data onto our platform.

 

AquaHacking with open data

In April, ThinkData Works was asked to help curate a list of datasets for the inaugural AquaHacking summit in Ottawa, Ontario. The summit brought together water experts, politicians, developers and citizens to discuss the problems facing the Ottawa River, one of Canada’s largest watersheds. Part of the summit was a hackathon, where apps focused on the health of the river were created.

Under normal circumstances, the people creating these apps would have to spend huge swaths of time scavenging through various government portals, hoping that they’d not only find data that was useful but was, furthermore, machine-readable.

This time, they didn’t have to. ThinkData Works siphoned through dozens of government sites to find data relevant to the hackathon and then (with some help from Import.io on the tricky ones) brought that data onto Namara.io where it was laid out in a simple, navigable catalogue.

Basically, it let them drink the wine without having to crush the grapes.

What was exciting about developing the AquaHacking catalogue was that we didn’t know what people would actually do with the data, we just removed the roadblocks that were stopping them from using it. We afforded them the opportunity to work more efficiently, which, in turn, gave them more time to develop an amazing product.

And, these days, when people can interact more freely with data, they can interact better with the world.

Open data is exciting

So maybe it’s not that people are bored when you try to tell them about Open Data – maybe it’s just all too big and incomprehensible and that makes it difficult to understand. But what about when it’s easy to understand? What about when it’s accessible? What about when companies like ThinkData Works and Import.io remove the roadblocks, crush the grapes, and make data, for lack of a better word, sexy?

Well that, ultimately, might just be when people’s eyes stop glazing over!

This is a guest post from Lewis Jones of ThinkData Works

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