Open Data: A Learning Summit and More

by Jonathan Jacobsen Thursday, September 27, 2012 12:35 PM

On September 21st, BC Libraries Co-op, along with the BC Ministry of Education and the Office of the Information & Privacy Commissioner, hosted an Open Data Learning Summit here in Vancouver.

British Columbia’s Information & Privacy Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham (herself an Archivist!) kicked off the day, followed by keynote speaker David Eaves. Some folks are born to public speaking and have an amazing gift to entertain and inform in front of an audience, without notes, barely referring to a PowerPoint. David is one of them; it was a treat to hear him speak.

The key idea of open data is that information collected by governments and other publicly-funded organizations ought to be freely available to all, without the need to ask for it, or for permission to use it.

David articulated three principles of open data:

  1. If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist.
  2. If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage.
  3. If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower.

AKA "Find, Use and Share." This reminds me of my first year in library school. The same principles were taught then. Clearly there is a natural fit between open data advocates and users and librarians. Data made freely available is just one more information source to use and manage.

How can you make use of the growing open data sets?

  • Locate data sets of particular interest to your users. Many are indexed in Google, as well as listed on sites such as datalibre.ca, datacatalogs.org, thedatahub.org and freebase.com.
  • Use the information in particular data sets yourself, to fulfill research requests from your users.
  • Combine data from related data yourself. A common starter approach is simply to plot data in chart form or overlaid on a map. Visual displays of data often yield insights not obvious in the raw, textual or numeric data itself.

A few tools you can use to make use of open data include:

  • Desktop database management applications such as DB/TextWorks, Filemaker PRO and MS Access, or even simply a spreadsheet app.
  • Google Refine – a "tool for working with messy data, cleaning it up, transforming it from one format into another, extending it with web services, and linking it to databases" – as well as many other tools from Google.
  • Andornot (yes, we’re a tool). We’re experts in database design and data conversion, and can assemble data sets into a manageable form for you.

The open data movement has grown by leaps and bounds over just the past few years as users push for it and governments embrace it (and in fact make use of the data themselves). Just as the open source software movement has grown over the past decade or two, expect open data to see similar growth in the coming years. As information professionals, it’s our job to at least understand the key concepts and know when this is the right resource for a particular situation.

Tags: open data

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