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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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