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Open data is powerful, but humans add the value

08 March 2012

Public data should be available for public benefit and it is we humans who add real value to open data, putting it to innovative use, from generating maps for relief efforts to pinpointing crime hotspots. That was the message Professor Nigel Shadbolt put to his audience in a packed theatre last month as he took to the podium as guest lecturer in the current Royal Academy of Engineering Technology Visionaries series.

Professor Shadbolt considers data to have "transformative power" and when you make it accessible on a large scale, people can develop remarkable things from it and benefit society. Open data is not just about technology but people collaborating and working together, he asserts. To illustrate his point, he showed how a detailed open street map of the Haitian capital Port au Prince was created within just 12 days of the recent earthquake, as people on the ground with GPS devices uploaded information. According to Professor Shadbolt, the map proved crucial to relief efforts and demonstrated the power of open standards in action.

The opening up of UK government data - a project originally driven by a desire for transparency and accountability - is resulting in similar useful applications for raw data. And while the transparency issue essentially remains at the heart of this initiative, there is now more of a focus on how that data can be used to benefit the public sector, society at large and even to generate revenue.

All parties stand to gain from open data. The government has seen benefits and businesses and local councils have saved money by publishing information online. The public takes notice when, for instance, a mobile app makes a difference to their lives, Professor Shadbolt told his audience, citing a recent example of a government app that plots local crime data on a map of a user's locality, based on a postcode. This receives the most visits of any government website and is the result of using open data from the UK police forces.

"There is evidence that if you put government data out there, people will build applications and have new ideas how to use it. Public data should be available for public benefit and we need licenses for the public to re-use data in any way they choose," he said. Of course, such freedom brings with it fears about privacy and the responsible interpretation of the data. In Professor Shadbolt’s view, having data on the web enables more scrutiny, leading to more discussion about the validity of interpretations and the data.

Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southampton, is currently working on the midata project which aims to get consumers' data back from government and business and put in a format that is easy for consumers to organise and control.

A video of his lecture to the Royal Academy of engineering  is available here.

Before we depart the stuccoed elevations of Carlton House Terrace, my attention was caught by Andrew Montford's sideswipe at the Royal Society in a recent report he authored for the Global Warming Policy Foundation, in which he calls upon this august institution to restore a "culture of open-mindedness and balanced assessment" of climate science and climate policy. In his report, Mr Montford urges the Royal Society to ensure that genuine controversies are reflected in its public debates and reports, and that the full range of reputable scientific views are being considered.

“As the Society’s independence has disappeared, so has its former adherence to hard-nosed empirical science and a sober detachment from the political process," Mr Montford claims. "Gone are the doubts and uncertainties that afflict any real scientist, to be replaced with the dull certainties of the politician and the public relations man.”

In his report, Nullius in Verba:
The Royal Society and Climate Change, Andrew Montford describes the development of the Royal Society’s role in the climate debates since the 1980s. He accuses the Society of a gradual closing of critical scrutiny and scientific impartiality, and the emergence of an almost dogmatic confidence that climate science is all but settled.

Mr Montford asserts that, in recent years, the Society has issued a series of highly political statements demanding drastic action on energy and climate policies from policy makers and governments. On the issue of climate change, it has adopted an increasingly political rather than scientific tone. Instead of being an open forum for informed scientific debate, says the report's author, the Society is at risk of turning into a "quasi-political campaign group".

Mr Montford is apparently not without academic support. In a foreword to the report, MIT’s Professor Richard Lindzen, an eminent atmospheric scientist, warns that "the legitimate role of science as a powerful mode of inquiry has been replaced by the pretence of science to a position of political authority."

Whether or not the scientific community can truly be insulated from political influence, particularly when its research is financed, in part, through public funding, is a moot point. However, institutions like the Royal Society must presumably speak with the majority voice of their members. If the consensus among scientists is that anthropogenic climate change is a reality, then calls for “drastic action on energy and climate policies from policy makers and governments” are to be expected from a responsible scientific body. More worrying is the possibility that the views of dissenters are not being given proper hearing for fear of opprobrium; this, rather than the broader accusation of political grandstanding, is probably behind Andrew Montford’s call for more “open-mindedness and balanced assessment”.

Les Hunt

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