Thursday, March 1, 2012

Open Data Summary

The readings on open science, and several of the links in the readings for open data, refer to "the semantic web."  This world of linked data that is machine readable is a way to expedite research and to bring together data so that more time is spent on analysis and synthesis as opposed to searching.  Some are referring to the semantic web as "Web 3.0."  Tim Berners-Lee describes the semantic web "as a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines." (Wikipedia entry on Semantic Web).  Our readings about the Open Science community indicates that such open data on the Semantic Web would be a major step forward in the fields of scientific endeavors.

One of the sites linked is the open data page at  This site invites us to
Make recommendations on data that should be shared. Create an app or mashup that makes that data understandable. Share your views on what the policies should be for making government more transparent.
As an education administrator I have a great appetite for data in evaluating the success of our programs and charting the course for their future.  I often feel inundated with the data that I have available, but also feel that the data critical to the evaluation or decision to be made is lacking.  The request at the site is important in two ways:
  1. Much of the data that would improve what we teach, and the effectiveness of the way we teach is not openly shared and requires a lot of effort to mine pertinent information
  2. The invitation to identify the data that is available, suggest data that should be available, and creating access mechanism to make the data understandable is an invitation that will provide access to more data AND actually make it usable.
The TED presentation by Tim Bernars-Lee that is linked under the Open Data link at the course webpage provides his reasoning for proposing accumulation and tagging of data to form the Semantic Web.  He said that his motivation for the proposal of hypertext and the web was, to use a term borrowed from Eric Raymond, a programmer scratching an itch.  His frustration with different applications, databases, and communication and storage formats motivated him to propose the use of hypertext and the http infrastructure.  This eliminated many of the issues that were frustrating him.  The proposal of open access to raw data with tagging is scratching the same itch.  The use of http naming for data and things allows us to search for data, and related data, if we can get that data open to access and then appropriately tag the data.

He suggests three rules for open data:
  1. Use of http naming for data and things
  2. Use of http to search for data
  3. Use hyyp naming to associate related data
Berners-Lee makes the statement in this video that "the interesting thing about data is the more things you connect together, the more powerful it is."  He decried the "hugging" of data where people hide raw data while they work to make it beautiful through a carefully structured databases or websites.  He encourages to make the raw data available now.

As a side note to our openness conversations to this point.  One of the interesting thoughts that has come to me is the degree of professional and academic humility that active participants in any open community must have.  I think we all feel insecure about letting others watch the process that we go through to assemble our thoughts and ideas.  There is an element to transparency that makes us feel inadequate and exposed.  I think that there may be both cultural and personality based reasons for us to want our exposed work to be finished and bug free.  When we use an open notebook approach in our formulation of ideas or practices we are also leaving the many of the trial and error experimentation that we pursue visible to others.  We have to feel a little more comfortable with people seeing our mistakes and not take offense when they notice them or offer alternatives that correct them.  The degree of humility required is important.

Somewhat related to the humility is consideration of the value of our contributions.  We live in a world that is driven by money.  Or if not money, at least the accumulation of some currency that can be used to acquire the necessities of life.  In saying that I am not necessarily referring to the accumulation of wealth.  Unfortunately, sustaining a flow of some type of trade-able currency is necessary to sustaining a flow of food, clothing, shelter, and other basic needs of life.  One might argue over how much is enough, but the need cannot be denied.  The accumulation of knowledge and the process of discovery and invention has been one of the ways that our culture has evolved to create that currency.  In order to guarantee the ongoing flow of that currency, there are advantages to being first and legal protections have been created for those who are first.  It takes a great deal of tolerance for sacrifice to give away that culturally evolved currency.  It is my observation that most of those who are proponents of openness are also in positions of relative security when it comes to the flow of currency.  They are in relatively safe in their positions funded by governments, enjoy the benefits of tenure, or are already independently wealthy (at least to the extent that they feel the need).  I wonder how their zeal for openness might be tempered if they were in a position earlier in their career or profession?

In making the last observation I do not mean to imply that the security of tenure, independent wealth, or nature of employment are the reasons for espousing the benefits of openness.  I also do not mean to imply that this conversation is about greed and wealth.  The motivations are varied and most who desire openness, particularly where it comes to education and revealing knowledge, are genuinely interested in expanding the opportunities of learning to everyone, without regard for their ability to pay. 

But openness has to deal with these cultural evolutions related to currency and protection of invention as it moves forward.  There needs to be adequate consideration of the sense of personal security that researchers and discoverers must wrestle with, particularly when out society rewards original research, discovery, and entrepreneurial in academia and business.  I think we all need to be mindful of the issue that arose when Stallman began to drive people away by his approach to those struggling with open software in the early years of GNU.  Sometimes our zeal can create a sense of judging the poor motives of others that cause them to misunderstand the benefits of openness and result in a hardening against it.  That is no way to help others overcome the societal insecurity when a valuable asset is created or discovered by them and then freely given away.  Whether this is right or not is not the issue.  The issue is that there is an issue.  And we must deal with these cultural and personal motivations and rewards for openness to be accepted as the standard way of generating and sharing knowledge.


  1. "Openness has to deal with these cultural evolutions related to currency and protection of invention as it moves forward." I couldn't agree more.

    I think that your earlier observations is also critically important, but I think you might be looking at the relation backward:

    "It is my observation that most of those who are proponents of openness are also in positions of relative security when it comes to the flow of currency. They are in relatively safe in their positions funded by governments, enjoy the benefits of tenure, or are already independently wealthy."

    I think that once one reaches a state of modest security it becomes a moral obligation for them to become more open, working to lift and bless the lives of others, doing what they can to help them achieve similar security. I am a firm believer that one of the primary reasons God blesses us with security is to enable us to be more useful to our brothers and sisters, and I think there is a specific application here.

    1. David,

      I agree that there is an element of cart and horse or chicken or egg here. The fact is that there are those who still monetize knowledge and see some threat towards sharing until they have reached a reasonable point of exploitation. Once they have seen the fruits of their labors in discovery, they are perfectly fine with setting another place at the table.