Christian Long

Tim Berners-Lee: The Year Open Data Went Worldwide

In TED Talks on April 11, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Reflection by MIKE N.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Tim Berners-Lee:  The Year Open Data Went Worldwide

Last year, at TED2009, Tim Berners-Lee asked the governments, scientists, and communities to put their data, raw data, on the web for public access. Berners-Lee believed that people would use this data to create and do wonderful things. In his talk at TED2010, “The year open data went worldwide,” he discusses how that over the course of a year a raw data movement has started, and it already has had great impacts.

He starts by sharing that very soon after TED2009, the UK government had already released a set of raw data. This data was very simple – it was about bicycle accidents. In its raw form, this data had little use to people. But, after only two days, the Times Online had made an online, interactive map to represent this data. This allowed people to go in to a website, pull up the route they take to work each morning, and see how safe it was. To me, this is astonishing. People’s lives are now safer due to something that started simply by someone who took a couple of minutes to post some raw data on the web.

While the Times Online’s use of this raw data helped people’s lives, sometimes connecting pieces of raw data can be disastrous. Berners-Lee discusses that back in 2008, a lawyer made a map of neighborhood in Ohio which incorporated raw data that showed which houses had been connected to water, and which houses had not. This seems harmless. But, this man also tied in another piece of raw data – which houses were owned by white people, and which owned by non-white. He was ordered to pay $10.9 million by a judge. This shows the great power that connecting sets of raw data can have, and that this power can be good or bad. Separately, the two sets of data did not imply anything that could be taken badly. But, when the lawyer put them together, and by noticing that there was a correlation between which houses were owned by white people and which houses had water, he was sued for millions of dollars. On a side note, I wonder if this result was due to the lawyer actually being racist, or due to how our society now seems to look for and exaggerate something that may not have been meant to be politically incorrect, and make it politically incorrect.

But I digress…

Berners-Lee continues to discuss ways that raw data that was specific to certain areas, such as a certain ZIP code, could be used. One example would be a newspaper created for a certain ZIP code. Because that newspaper would have raw data specific to that area, it could be much more useful to the reader. For example, this newspaper could discuss data on certain bus stops near your house, while in a city newspaper, these bus stops would affect too small of a portion of its readers to include. Raw data specific to certain areas could be used to affect people’s lives in a positive way that had never been thought of before.

Berners-Lee concludes his talk by discussing the Open Street Map. This is a wiki map – a map that anyone can edit. Before the earthquake, Haiti’s map, specifically that of Port au-Prince, was not all that it could be, especially in comparison to maps in the US. After the earthquake, a commercial company called GeoEye released some very important raw data – satellite imagery with a license that allowed the open-source community to use it. Very quickly, mappers all over the world who wanted to help used this imagery and the Open Street Map to create a very good and detailed map of Port au-Prince – one that included hospitals, refugee camps, etc. Then Berners-Lee showed a picture of what I believe is the most incredible part of this entire raw data movement – a rescue volunteer with a Garmin GPS device, equipped with Haiti’s Open Street Map.

To me, again, this is incredible, and another great example of how raw data can affect the world. Because GeoEye released its raw satellite imagery, and because people who wanted to help had public access to it, rescue workers could help the people of Haiti in a much more effective manner, and it probably saved many lives. This is why I think that raw data movement is a very important one, and I believe that it has practical uses that, while now we may not even be able to dream of them, will one day become integral parts of our day-to-day lives.

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