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Business - Written by on Thursday, June 12, 2008 18:17 - 4 Comments

Democratizing Data

A very interesting report was just released by the Princeton Centre for Information Technology Policy advocating for the increased release of government data for public consumption, and for letting independent providers, rather than government websites, dissect and present that data. We’re very big fans of both, and have spent considerable time researching the potential offered by the democratization of government-held data. In fact, as part of our Government 2.0 project we have a couple of projects in progress on this topic. Included amongst them is a short report by nGenera collaborator David Stephenson on the potential of data visualisation platforms such as Swivel, ManyEyes and Google Motion Chart. You can view one of David’s recent presentations on the topic here.

As for the Princeton report, Government and the Invisible Hand, it provides added support to the belief that the data that resides within agency firewalls could lead to significant public value if made freely (and easily) available to the rest of us.
The report notes:

“If the next Presidential administration really wants to embrace the potential of Internet-enabled government transparency, it should follow a counter-intuitive but ultimately compelling strategy: reduce the federal role in presenting important government information to citizens. Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility.

Rather than struggling, as it currently does, to design sites that meet each end-user need, we argue that the executive branch should focus on creating a simple, reliable and publicly accessible infrastructure that exposes the underlying data. Private actors, either nonprofit or commercial, are better suited to deliver government information to citizens and can constantly create and reshape the tools individuals use to leverage public data.”

Rather than have statistics presented in static form on government portals, the future should see organizations allow their constituents to use free visualisation platforms to transform data into conversations about communities, economies and lifestyles. As Hans Rosling told me in a (not-so) recent conversation, ‘the role of the State is to provide the sidewalks between data sources,’ and thus thanks to visualisation and data animation tools, allow data to be consumed and digested by statisticians and laymen alike.

One of the few examples I’ve been able to find of a government agency actually going down this path is the Swivel-hosted Utah Data Group. Created by Utah CTO Dave Fletcher, the group doesn’t quite have the participants needed to make for a robust dialogue but nonetheless it provides a couple of examples of the conversations that can ensue from this confluence of technology and transparency.

Here’s hoping such efforts cease to be the exception, and perhaps more important, get incorporated into Government 2.0 portals and mashups.


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Ben Letalik
Jun 13, 2008 11:04


This is a very interesting topic and certainly something I would like to know more about. I think the democratization of government data is becoming more necessary as public trust of the government declines with each month.

I am particularly concerned with the government’s CPI statistics. The measures and especially the language used when the government describes CPI figures are confusing for someone like me with a background in economics and business. I can’t imagine how confused an average voting citizen would be. Language like “seasonally adjusted” would mean very little to the average voter. Some believethis language is used to mask the true underlying inflation numbers. Visualization tools and releasing the underlying data could make confusing, yet very relevant statistics like CPI more understandable to the voting population.

Democratized data adds another piece to the elusive “perfect information” puzzle required for perfect capital markets. How can corporations and citizens make wise investment decisions if such vital stats like inflation are obscured and unknown? I imagine with all this data being public, simple, easily understood visualization tools could clear up the confusion.

It seems like the fed has taken notice as CPI was higher than expected in May, and raise the rate in August

Wikinomics » Blog Archive » A picture made of 1000 words
Aug 27, 2008 18:54

[...] 27th, 2008, 06:54pm We’ve blogged before about visualization tools like ManyEyes and Swivel (here, here, and here), but I thought I’d reiterate the point of how powerful and readily available [...]

The United State’s New CIO, Vivek Kundra | ideonexus.com
Mar 12, 2009 15:01

[...] of his efforts to build a Digital Public Square. This concept is synchronous with the concept of democratizing government data. That is, the government should simply give us all the raw data and leave it to citizens to [...]

Reviving the Reality Television Genre | Cheeky Fresh
May 11, 2009 21:54

[...] with friends, mine it for ideas and innuendo, and use it in amateur films. Viewers want to “democratize” the footage. Fair or not – that’s what increasingly tech-savvy audiences want – they want to participate [...]

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