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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:

Budget Cuts Threatening Data.gov

March 31st, 2011

You may have heard that the Data.gov website is going to be shut down.  I wish I could say this is completely false, but  I can at least say that it is a bit premature — if Congress cuts the budgets to the threatened level, a number of sites, including Data.gov will have trouble continuing to grow, and some may have to be shut down — but right now the budget cuts are not final, and the plans are still in the works.  Data.gov, luckily, is less expensive than some of the other sites to maintain, so the discussion right now is more about cutting plans for expansion than shutting down completely, but even that would be a major blow to open government data. However, sites like USAspending and others will be harder to maintain, and even data.gov could end up shut down if the full cuts go through unchanged (but at least I’m personally hoping the Senate and White House will resist this)

What you can do is to get involved!  Let your politicians hear from you — the Sunlight Foundation has a great site about this at http://sunlightfoundation.com/savethedata/ which will let you sign a petition and has some suggestions for other actions.  It also has up to date information on the situation — please go look there.

There’s also a lot of articles out there, and much to follow in twitter space — here’s some starting points

In the past day, there have been a lot of articles in the news about Data.gov:  http://www.google.com/search?q=%22data+gov%22&hl=en&prmdo=1&tbm=mbl&num=10&lr=&ft=i&cr=&safe=images&tbs=qdr:w#q=data.gov&hl=en&lr=&prmdo=1&tbm=nws&ei=ehuVTfz9GY3msQOCiJ3MBQ&start=0&sa=N&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.&fp=83f1e1e6450f219c

A good article by Beth Noveck (I’m the president of her fan club :-) ): Huffington Post: “Why Cutting E-Gov Funding Threatens American Jobs
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beth-simone-noveck/why-cutting-egov-funding-_b_840430.html

The hashtag for following this on twitter is #savethedata

So please, join us in saving these important government transparency efforts!!

-Jim Hendler

p.s. For some irony, Hong Kong’s open data site went live today: http://www.gov.hk/en/theme/psi/welcome/

Here’s some more articles and things for those interested

Federal News Radio, Daniel Shuman, Sunlight Foundation, “Budget cuts may end transparency programs”  http://www.federalnewsradio.com/index.php?nid=17&sid=232614
Federal News Radio, Executive Editor, Jason Miller, “OMB prepares for open gov sites to go dark in May”: http://www.federalnewsradio.com/?nid=35&sid=2327798
Sunlight Foundation, Daniel Shuman, “Budget Technopocalypse Deepens: Transparency Sites will go dark in a few months”: http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2011/03/31/budget-technopocalypse-deepens-transparency-sites-will-go-dark-in-a-few-months/
Washington Examiner, Mark Tapscott, “Transparency advocates appeal to Congress to avoid budget cuts”: http://washingtonexaminer.com/blogs/beltway-confidential/2011/03/transparent-advocates-appeal-congress-avoid-budget-cuts
PCWorld, Grant Gross, “Group Protests Proposed Cuts to e-Government Transparency Efforts”: http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/223618/group_protests_proposed_cuts_in_egovt_transparency_efforts.html
“Data.gov and 7 other sites to shut down after budget cuts”: http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/datagov_7_other_sites_to_shut_down_after_budgets_c.php

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Building a mobile app for ISWC2010

November 9th, 2010

One of the things I find annoying while attending conferences is the huge amount of papers we receive: Talks, maps, “metadata” about the conference in general. So, for ISWC2010, my solution was to create a mobile application where people attending a conference could retrieve the information they wanted.

The first question you may ask when you create a mobile app is which niche you want to cover: The mobile ecosystem contains a wide range of devices, each of them with different capabilities, features, etc. This implies that a developer should choose which platforms to support and which feature he or she can use.

With ISWC in mind, my impression was that most of the attendees would use a smartphone, in particular iPhones or Android. Since I wanted to cover both platforms, I decided not to create native applications (for now).

I based my work on Sencha Touch which is a nice library that uses CSS3, HTML5 and Javascript. The app works fine in iPhone, iPod, iPad, Android devices, as well as Chrome and Safari browsers.

In this app it is possible to obtain and navigate through information about authors, papers, workshops (sadly, I could not obtain the data about workshop papers on time), scheduling, rooms and sessions. The data is obtained from a SPARQL endpoint containing the ISWC 2010 metadata. Each action implies a SPARQL query end the results are retrieved as a JSON object. I also obtained picture of authors from Arnetminer.


Finally I added a twitter feed with all the relevant hahstags (#iswc, #iswc2010, #cold2010, #seres2010, #c3lsw2010, etc.), so you can read what people is tweeting about the latest events (you shouldn’t have problems with firewalls, etc).
I encourage you to go to http://iswc.mobi and try ISWC Mobile. Of course, comments suggestions (and bug reports!) are always welcome.

Alvaro Graves

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Real-time Twitter filters for ISWC

November 8th, 2010

Real-time social networking services such as Twitter provide compelling use cases for Semantic Web technologies.  Last summer at SemTech, I gave a talk with examples of real-time semantic Twitter feeds powered by SPARQL and Twitter Annotations. While Annotations have not yet been released, they’re not the only way to add SemWeb-friendly structure to social data. The International Semantic Web Conference is a case in point. A reasonable combination of the ISWC 2010 Conference Corpus data assembled by Jie Bao and others, tweet metadata such as author and timestamp, and embedded nanosyntax (that is, hashtags), provide enough structure for useful semantic filtering. To illustrate, I present a general-purpose Web widget which grabs these filtered streams from a generic SPARQL endpoint. Of course, the endpoint needs to expose microblog data modeled in SIOC and FOAF. When applied to the ISWC data, the widget provides real-time views of Twitter conversations which make good use of the background knowledge we have about the conference. So now,

Check out the demo!

SPARQL-based Twitter widget


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Quick Update on ISWC Twitter Data (1)

November 8th, 2010

At ISWC 2010, there are several on-going efforts to leverage Twitter data. Some ones that I’m aware of are:

Joshua Shinavier has helped to build a triple store (powered by AllegroGraph) that contains tweets related to the conference, along with basic ISWC metadata. Here is an example of SPARQLing with the triple store (details about tweets with tag #iswc2010 and #iswc). More examples and guide on how to use the triple store will be out soon.

URL: http://flux.franz.com/catalogs/demos/repositories/iswc2010#query

Marian Dörk helped us to visualize tweets at ISWC. You can see the relative traffic by time, the distribution of buzz words at the conference, and who is twittering about what. Marian is looking into interviewing our attendees for the tool – if you have comment, let him (mdoerk@ucalgary.ca) or me know (baojie@cs.rpi.edu)

URL: http://ilab51.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/iswc2010

To be continued.

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