Interview: Jon Udell

Jon Udell writes about the outside edge of what’s happening on the web (including lawnmowers), but his focus is often as much about how regular, non-digerati people might be helped by new changes and technologies. Formerly the blogger-in-chief at Infoworld, he’s now working with microsoft. He’s been writing recently about public data, and I wanted to find out why.

1. you seem to be spending much time recently writing about access to public data … why is that?

I’ve always thought the real purpose of information technology was to harness our collective intelligence to tackle complex and pressing problems. When I heard Doug Engelbart’s talk at the 2004 Accelerating Change conference. I realized for the first time how all of his work points toward that one goal. Graphical user interfaces, networks, hyperlinked webs of information — for him, these are all means by which we “augment” our human capabilities so we can have some hope of dealing with the challenges we face as a species.

In that context, getting data into shared information spaces is just part of the story. We’ll also need to be able to share the tools we use to analyze and interpret the data, and the conversations we have about the analysis and interpretation.

2. what do you think is the most compelling argument for making public data available to citizens?

Well it’s ours, our taxes paid for it, so we should have it. But the compelling reason is that we need more eyeballs, hands, and brains figuring out what’s going on in the world, so that when we debate courses of action we can ground our thinking in the best facts and interpretations.

3. are you convinced by any arguments *against* making public data available to citizens?

Here’s an argument I don’t buy: That amateur analysts will do more harm than good. I don’t buy it because there will be checks and balances. Those who don’t cite data will be laughed at. Those who do cite data but interpret it incorrectly will be corrected. Those who do great work will develop reputations that are discoverable and measurable.

Here’s an argument I do buy: There’s the risk of violating privacy. The District of Columbia, for example, has released a lot of data but has postponed releasing adult arrests and charges until the location information can be aggregated. We will increasingly have to make these kinds of calls.

5. public data is an issue that most people will have trouble getting excited about. how do you think “data activists” should approach it?

The best advice I’ve heard comes from Tom Steinberg, founder of MySociety.org. He counsels activists to use data in ways that matter directly to people. Suppose you could get geographic data on planned highway routes, for example. Nobody cares, until you connect the dots and show people their houses will have to be bulldozed to make way for it. Then they really care.

6. in your experience with government officials, how have *they* reacted to your requests for data?

When I started asking my local police department for crime data, they stonewalled. Eventually I had to get a lawyer to write them a letter citing our state’s ‘Right to Know’ act, and we were both unhappy about having to do that.

But once I met with the police chief and explained my interest in exploring both local patterns as well as this whole general process, he was OK with that. Better than OK, actually. I think he was relieved when he saw that some questions people have been speculating about might now be discussed in a more rational way. And he’s really excited by the prospect of geographical analysis because they haven’t had that capability.

8. what do you think are the connections between open access to public data and other similar movements – free culture, free software etc?

There’s an arc that runs from free and open-source software, to open data, to Web 2.0-style participation, and now to the collaborative use of software, services, and public data in order to understand and influence public policy.

9. with your crystal ball, where do you think the confluence of these movements will take us in, say, 5 years?

I’m sure it won’t happen that soon, but here’s what I’d like to see. Imagine some local, state, or national debate. The facts and interpretations at issue are rarely attached to URLs, much less to to primary sources of data at those URLs and to interactive visualizations of the data. We spend lots of time arguing about facts and interpretations, but mostly in a vacuum with no real shared context, which is wildly unproductive. If we could establish shared context, maybe we could argue more productively, and get more stuff done more quickly and more sanely.