Open data becoming open information

Many talk about open data, but many don’t realize the power it has to convert open data into open information. An example of this is what has happened recently in New York: newspaper’s gun owner database draws criticism.

The article is provocative: The gun owner next door: What you don’t know about the weapons in your neighborhood. The converted data, taken from public sources via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, is placed as overlays into Google Maps to form information in Map: Where are the gun permits in your neighborhood?

The USA is a great nation because it has the FOIA. In Malaysia, we’ve been trying to get a FOIA only to be told its not required and a Whistleblower’s Act is better. Having an FOIA with a standard reporting set can ensure we can build maps of dengue hotspots, look at trends if neighborhoods are safe or if crime is increasing, etc. Instead we have a Home Minister saying his crime stats are correct and we should just believe him, yet everyone knows someone that’s been a victim of crime. Its disgusting, but I digress.

This isn’t a post about gun laws either. People die with or without guns, but massacres only seem to happen in America. Malaysians get gunned down despite illegal possession of a gun probably equating you to receiving the death penalty. Go figure.

This is about open data becoming open information. Gun owners could never guess that their details would be pasted online. They submit data when they renew their gun permits. Anyone can ask for this data, compile it, add it on an overlay with something modern like Google Maps, and publish this as information.

I understand that sexual offenders get on a registry, and this information is also available as a matter of public record.

Data by itself means little to many. But in the hands of a data scientist, it gets converted to useful information, infographics, et al. Is it bad that thieves today can know which house to potentially rob? Is it good that you don’t send your kids to your neighbors house because there are guns in it?

There are many other examples where I can see usefulness in having open data becoming open information. Think about having the CV of every member of parliament available as a matter of public record. I’d like to know if I’m more intelligent than the average politician (in Malaysia I estimate that the average person in the Klang Valley is more educated than about 70% of politicians). Imagine knowing if your public servant has served you well in the last five years, because people had access to a public repository of complaints that each was meant to take up on (this comes from opening up the hansard). 

When you play around with information, you can skew it. This is what the (controlled) media and politicians do in Malaysia. This is why its important that the data used to create the information is open as well. If the data is open, people can independently conclude that the information is correct. Or can always question it. Not everyone I expect will do this, and I believe the 1%-10%-rest rule applies: 1% will convert data into information, 10% will decide what information to spread, and the rest will just believe this.

This is a great contrast to how regimes control the media and expect 1% to feed 99% of the information. 

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  3. The Internet era, exposing information, then getting death threats
  4. Core Data and MySQL as a data store?
  5. Flickr, and a GPS enabled camera phone

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