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Unanticipated consequences: Saving data.gov

April 14th, 2011

I had a bizarre dream last night, one of those surreal shockers. The details aren’t important, but I realized on waking up that the dream’s theme was all about unanticipated consequences.  I realized I needed to write this post.

To set some context: I went to bed upset last night.  I was upset at two things, one is an article on techcrunch entitled “Five Open Questions For Data.gov Before We #SaveTheData,” the other was my response to the article.  I hope I can respond to the first and apologize for the second.  I want to make one thing clear, however, before I start – I am a strong supporter of http://data.gov, I think it is a great experiment in democracy resulting from bold leadership, and if it dies in the current budget cutting it will be an enduring embarrassment for the USA and a major loss to government transparency.

The article I was upset about was written by Kate Ray (@kraykray), an amazingly bright and articulate young woman who has made several very impressive videos and online articles that I am a fan of.  She recently was one of the co-founders of “NerdCollider,” a website designed to bring intelligent discussion to interesting issues — an idea I support.  I was proud to be an early contributor to one of their discussions, which asked “What would you change about Data.gov to get more people to care?

In the TechCrunch blog post I mentioned above, Kate takes several quotes from this discussion and reflects on their import — is data.gov taking some of the key issues into account?  As a good reporter, Kate’s OpEd is actually quite objective – she reports on several comments made by people, including me, as to issues the site has in terms of its effort to share government data.   TechCrunch is a very influential site, the article title has been tweeted and retweeted hundreds of times to hundreds of thousands of potential readers (congrats to Kate on this viral takeup), raising awareness of Congress’ narrow-minded goal of killing the project, which I guess is a good thing.  Unfortunately, the choice of the word “Before” in “… Before we #savethedata” has a negative implication, and I’m hoping that doesn’t kill off the positive efforts that the #savethedata meme was designed to promote.

In her article, Kate brings up important issues, but what she doesn’t make clear is that most of the people she quotes are indeed strong supporters of the Open Government movement and fans of Data.gov.  The seeming criticisms were actually constructive responses to the question of how we could get more people to care (a positive), and not meant to say what was wrong with the site that must be fixed before the site was useful.  It’s already very useful, but like any new effort, there’s always room for improvement. However, those changes will never happen if the site is forced to go dark!

As I said, Kate’s article has been phenomenally well tweeted, in fact, if you look at #savethedata the stream is so filled with pointers to this article that one can no longer easily find the link to the Petition created by the Sunlight Foundation to help stop the budget cuts — that petition is where the #savethedata meme started (thanks @EllnMiller).  Kate also doesn’t point to the great HuffPost article by @bethnoveck explaining why cutting the funding to this and other egovernment sites will threaten American jobs which was also retweeting around the #savethedata meme.

So I hope one unanticipated consequence of this article is that it doesn’t help cause the death of data.gov by killing off the awareness of its importance or losing the momentum on the petition that could save it.

But, as Arlo Guthrie used to say, “that’s not what I came here to talk about tonight…”

In my response to Kate’s article, I referred to her making factual errors.  This is a horrible thing to accuse a young journalist of, and I was being unfair.  The errors I wanted to point out were not in Kate’s piece, but in the chart chosen to go along.  It appears to show a flatline in the interest in data.gov, using figures from (as Kate told me later in a separate tweet) compete.com on “unique visits.”  I don’t know where compete.com gets the data, but the tracking of the  number of visitors on the data.gov site — which are reported on the site on a daily basis seems to show a much larger number with a more positive trend (over 180,000 visits in March).  It’s unclear why there is this discrepancy (I suspect it’s in how compete.com figures uniqueness for sites they don’t control), but it is clear it isn’t Kate’s fault.   She also cites the number of downloads in her article as 1.5M since Oct 2010, which is the number reported on data.gov, but as of last week, the site broke 2M downloads, and the number is trending up.

Anyway, I’m digressing again (occupational hazard of a college professor) — the key point is the errors are not Kate’s and that she was reflecting on what she found.

I also was upset that she quoted me out of context – in my nerdcollider response I made it clear I was supporting data.gov, and offering some constructive solutions to the question of how we could make the site better.  As the quote appears in her piece, it looks like I’m saying the data is poorly organized on the site — but what I was actually saying is that in the incredible richness of  data sets available (data.gov hosted over 300,000 datasets at last count!) we have to explore new ways to search for data  — it’s a wonderful problem to have!  But I did say what she quoted, and as she pointed out to me, correctly, one of the good things about nerdcollider is that the full context of the quotes are there to be cited.  She’s right.

So just as I hope Kate’s piece doesn’t have the unanticipated consequence of hurting data.gov, I hope my admittedly intemperate response doesn’t have the unanticipated consequence of hurting the reputation of this young potential online media star.

@kraykray – I apologize.

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Author: Categories: linked data, open data, personal ramblings, twitter Tags:

Thoughts on EGU Earth and Space Science Informatics

April 12th, 2011

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2011, held from April 22-27 in Vienna, Austria, brought together 10,725 researchers from approximately 96 countries to discuss advances and trends within the Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences.  Attendees presented over four thousand talks and nearly eight and a half thousand posters during the week-long conference.  The volume of information presented and ideas exchanged at EGU is truly staggering, and this meeting is a fundamental part of the social networking for this community.  It is the seed from which many new collaborations form and many grant proposals can trace their genesis to discussions at and around EGU sessions.  EGU is a loud, busy, hectic, and critical event to the Earth and Space Science research communities.

This year I had the pleasure of attending the EGU General Assembly and presenting two talks for our lab in the Earth and Space Science Informatics (ESSI) disciplinary session.  This trip was particularly interesting for me as it was the first time I have attended the EGU General Assembly (I have attended the ESSI session at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting for the last four years) and this afforded me the opportunity to talk with a large number of colleagues in the field from Eurasia whom I have not had previous interaction with.

Over the course of the meeting I came to realize that the European informatics community has a slightly different feel, a different focus from the American informatics groups.  For the European informatics evangelists, the driving focus in informatics is geoscience standards.  The session discourse revolved almost entirely on interoperability in systems and in data models.  Presentations on service-orientated architectures (SOA) that interoperate using Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) defined web services and data models were the rule of the day.  I believe this focus on interoperability and developing consensus on standards and services is deeply rooted in the culture of Europe and the inherent complexities of interacting with neighbors that are culturally and linguistically different.

The presentations I gave for the lab were quite well received.  Eric’s presentation on the S2S architecture was extremely well received because of its potential to interoperate with OGC web services, and its compatibility with many of the SOA initiatives currently being pursued by our European colleagues.  My presentation on the Multi-Sensor Data Synergy Advisor (MDSA), one of our collaborations Greg Leptoukh’s group at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, was also well received as it touched on the complexities of representing/characterizing and comparing concepts such as product quality and fitness-for-use and expressing this information in a way that is consumable by a researcher.  Difficulties in characterizing these concepts were well known to many in the audience who work to develop data model standards. Our work elicited particular interest from David Arctur, Director of Interoperability Programs for OGC, and this is a relationship we should most definitely pursue.

Overall, attending EGU 2011 was a great experience and I believe our lab should increase our presence at future meetings.  There is a great deal we can learn from our European colleagues on building consensus and establishing interoperable web service and data model standards.  The ESSI community is investing great effort in deploying production-level interagency SOA systems – developing experience from which we can benefit.  What our lab can offer is leadership in future web technologies.  We can help the EGU ESSI community adopt linked data / RESTful principles, and add support to their data model and service standards and best practices for semantic web standards and methodologies.  We can provide guidance on how semantic technologies can help further their current goals as well as how they can leverage semantic technologies going forward.

There is a great deal of benefit ESSI can gain from moving to leverage the Semantic Web.  We should be there to share our experiences and provide guidance.  A win for the Earth Sciences is a win for all.

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Author: Categories: Data Science Tags: , ,

Data.gov – it’s useful, but also could be better.

April 5th, 2011

The “Nerd Collider” Web site invited me to be a “power nerd” and respond to the question “What would you change about Data.gov to get more people to care?”  The whole discussion including my response can be found here.  However, I hope people won’t mind my reprinting my response here, as the TWC blog gets aggregated to some important Linked Data/Semantic Web sites.

My response:

I was puzzling over how I wanted to respond until I saw the blog in the Guardian – http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/apr/05/data-gov-crisis-obama – which also reflects this flat line as a failure, and poses, by contrast, the number of hits the Guardian.com website gets. This is such a massive apples vs. oranges error that I figure I should start there.

So, primarily, let’s think about what visits to a web page are about — for the Guardian, they are lots of people coming to read the different articles each day. However, for data.gov, there isn’t lot of repeat traffic – the data feeds are updated on a relatively slow basis, and once you’ve downloaded some, you don’t have to go back for weeks or months until the next update. Further, for some of the rapidly changing data, like the earthquake data, there are RSS feeds so once setup, one doesn’t return to the site. So my question is, are we looking at the right number?

In fact, the answer is no — if you want to see the real use of data.gov, take a look at the chart at http://www.data.gov/metric/visitorstats/monthlyredirecttrend — the number of total downloads of dataset since 2009 is well over 1,000,000 and in February of this year (the most recent data available) there were over 100,000 downloads — so the 10k number appears to be tracking the wrong thing – the data is being downloaded and that implies it is being used!!

Could we do better? Yes, very much so. Here’s things I’m interested in seeing (and working with the data.gov team to make available)

1 – Searching for data on the site is tough — keyword search is not a good way to look for data (for lots of reasons) and thus we need better ways – doing this really well is a research task I’ve got some PhD students working on, but doing better than is there requires some better metadata and approach. There is already work afoot at data.gov (assuming funding continues) to improve this significantly.

2 – Tools for using the data, and particularly for mashing it up, need to be more easily used and more widely available. My group makes a lot of info and tools available at http://logd.tw.rpi.edu – but a lot more is needed. This is where the developer community could really help.

3 – Tools to support community efforts (see the comment by Danielle Gould to this effect) are crucial – she says it better than I can so go read that.

4- there are efforts by data.gov to create communities – these are hard to get going, but could be a great value in the long run. I suggest people look to these at the data.gov communities site, and think about how they could be improved to bring more use – I know the data.gov leadership team would love to get some good comments about that.

5 – We need to find ways to turn the data release into a “conversation” between government and users. I have discussed this with Vivek Kundra numerous times and he is a strong proponent (and we have thought about writing a paper on the subject if time ever allows). The British data.gov.uk site has some interesting ideas along this line, based on open streetmap and similar projects, but I think one could do better. This is the real opportunity for “government 2.0″ – a chance for citizens to comment just on legislation, but to help make sure the data that informs the policy decisions is the best it can be.

So, to summarize, there are things we can do to improve things, many of which are getting done. However, the numbers in the graph above are misleading, and don’t really reflect the true usage of data.gov per se, let alone the other sites and sites like the LOGD site I mention above which are powered by data.gov.

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