On Tuesday it is just one month until the master thesis is to be handed in, hence the next weeks will be spent in front of the keyboard writing down findings from literature and interviews, editing the text, making connections and hopefully complete a text that can convey something interesting about what I perceive as an interesting trend in society.
At the current stage the chapter headings are written in section and subsection markup, but these are not written in stone. Trying to unravel a relatively new phenomenon is hard, and especially when the intersections between disciplines, methodology, theories and praxis are so varied. Since 2009 have a new trend emerged in which government share raw data from the public sector with the public sphere. How did this trend emerge? How does it work? What are the motivations, and how are the data used? In which context does this trend emerge? Many questions are to be asked, and hopefully the results of the research and literature review will yield a descriptive title.
I want to divide the literature I have read into specific and general literature. The general literature is the many books which writes about the general trend in society related to what I hope to understand, on the other hand is the specific literature employed to answer smaller and more concentrated questions. After conducting one of the interviews I reviewed Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. I think this is a book holds a key function in understanding computer visualisations, a popular usage of open public data, but it can not help me understand how, why and by which means the data.gov phenomenon came into existence. Books with a general scope are the books of Clay Shirky. Both his Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus seems to describe a general trend in our current society, and perhaps it is in the same ideological field that the interest for using public data starts. The alteration of our spare-time habits, and consumer/production dichotomy and the abolition of the self-supporting organisations structures are very interesting theories, and may explain trends such as Twitter, Wikipedia and Flick, but can it also explain “unprecedented level of openness in Government” to cite President Barack Obama. In the same categories of thoughts can we also find Jeff Howe’s book on Crowdsourcing, titled with its subject of discussion, or in Charles Leadbeater’s We Think focusing on the rise of mass creativity. This books exemplifies and describes the rise of the entrepreneurial web-culture, both as profit and non-profit, intensionally or not. Perhaps these books can explain the 2003 EU directive encouraging government to enable their information of re-use, as the axiom of crowds and content is that unexpected value creation will eventually happen.
The culture of Internet is important. Not only the culture as in the content provided by companies addressing their old customers on the new arena, but also the inherent culture of the Internet; the techno-meritocratic, the hacker, the communitarian and the entrepreneur cultures, as described by Manuel Castells’ in the Internet Galaxy. Perhaps the hacker-culture openness is gaining prevalence on the expense of the entrepreneurs, or have they merged? Bill Gates Open Letters to Hackers seems to be writing a long time ago considering todays remix culture where software companies developing operative systems provides a distribution platforms for smaller apps developed by everything from gigantic organisations to independent developers. For the mass market this came with App Store on iPhone, and later in Mac OSX and for Android users Google has provided Android Market (For the hacker community apt-like services has been available for longer, and with open source usage of code repositories such as git and subversion the newest versions have been available to be downloaded and compiled for free) Interesting fact, the governmental data can also be used for free, as in free speech, for people who intend to make profit on services in which they are included. An established rule in open source development testing is that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Linus law, named after the father of the Linux core and bazaar development, by Eric S. Raymond in his book The Cathedral and the Bazaar. If source code is available, why shouldn’t governmental information be? The whistle-blower website Wikileaks got much attention after releasing US diplomatic cables and the arrest of its leader Julian Assange, formerly known as Mendax. The hacker culture is not about what the culture itself would define as cracking, or in most cases disillusioned script-kiddis, it is about making changes to, improving software and learning the skill of computers. Could a parallel be drawn to society, or knowledge in general? Do FOI, Freedom Of Information, have something in common with the famous quote from Emacs text-editor programmer and Open Source guru Richard Stallman “free as in free speech; not as in free beer.” In his book on Wikileaks, Wikileaks and The Age of Transparency, Micah Sifry dedicates a chapter to the open government and the open data government trend. If you are sceptical to transparency or want a good reflection on how it is not all good I can recommend Lawrence Lessig’s article Against Transparency in the New Republic.
Governments sharing their information online is not only interesting for the hacker community or former consumers now emancipated from the fetters of Falcon Crest, it also adds up to large number of data that can be used in what is considered to be the next major iteration of the World Wide Web: the semantic web. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web has in an online draft stipulated a rating system for how data can contribute in a web of data. The web as we know it is made up from document linked through URLs, but what if it can also contain data. If you want to see how document and data function differently you can try to compare Google to Wolfram Alpha, the latter being a search engine presenting the results based on data while Google’s page rank engine gives you results according to the textual information on a page and its keywords.
If you are interested in the subject I have added my literature below. Please note that web links are not included in these files. If you have any books you recommend that are not on the list below please post the reference to them in the comment field.
The illustrative photo, where none of the books are those mentioned in this chapter is licensed under Creative Commons by Sanford Kearns and found on Flickr. Please refer to the link for more information.