Data is changing the way we interact with the world. Here at 21c, we have always believed that Data, particularly Open Data from governments and businesses, has immense potential to change the way we do almost everything. From making increasingly cramped city living more bearable to grabbing the attention of politicians, almost all of our fundamental human goals are now achieved from a platform of hard information filtered through soft, user-friendly apps. Data is now, to use the common jargon, the ‘enabler’ of our daily lives.
Until now, data has been kept together in the storage facilities of our institutions. Governments, companies and charities have maintained vast collections of information like gold in a vault; accessible only to those with the keys to the door. The Open Data movement which we have championed as a company has focused on the most logical thing to do when people keep such a valuable commodity locked away: Convince them to throw wide the doors to the vault. The metaphor is not perfect because, unlike gold in a vault, people taking and using data does not deprive the owner of its beneficial attributes but rather increases them. The more people use data, the more aggregate value is produced in the form of those soft, user-friendly apps mentioned earlier. The Open Data movement to blow open the doors off our data vaults is now gathering pace and now more people than ever can explore the rich troves of data by passing through their online gates: Open Data Portals.
And herein, as they say, lies the rub…
To explain the growing problem, it is necessary to refer back once again to those soft, user-friendly apps and the way in which they are putting the sword to the traditional media world. This thought came from an excellent blog piece, that can be read in full here but which I shall summarise for the reader as follows: a) People now understand the world through their smartphones b) the unit of information in the smartphone world is a story / article / piece of content c) people expect these pieces of content to find them where they are, when they want them d) traditional media requires people to access a good old fashioned website (or, god forbid, a newspaper/ magazine) and sift through content in search of compelling media e) The structure of traditional media companies around ‘websites’ is increasingly incompatible with the preferences of the smartphone age f) content must float seamlessly into/ out of the person’s experience not be locked away in the ‘vault of a traditional website g) adapt or die
The moral of this story is clear. In media, websites are vaults. Vaults, even ones with wide open doors, are obsolete in the world of floating digital content ushered in by smartphones. For media to adapt, they need to get their individual pieces of content into the hands and lives of their audience without forcing them inside the vault. So what does this mean for the world of Open Data?
Well the short answer is, as it so often is in technology: Tim Berners-Lee was right. Berners-Lee introduced, way back in 2006, a concept called ‘Linked Data’. The specifics of Open Data are not relevant to this theme so it will suffice to say that Linked Data is accessible not as a file in a website vault, but as a series of floating points (like individual news stories). His vision was that anyone can assemble the data they want by calling on one or more of these floating datum through a service; most of the time a soft, user-friendly app. So far, so prophetic, but the path to this vision is fraught with pitfalls.
We know from our work on Open Data that it is often a huge challenge just to open the doors to the online vault. The idea of setting each of the items inside that vault loose on the tides of the internet is a daunting challenge even for the most visionary of data owners. Yet this is the direction we are inexorably headed. The website data vault is dying a slow death at the hands of the ‘on demand’ generation and the network of information will be the expected norm soon enough.
We believe the transition toward Linked Data is something companies and governments all need to be planning for. We are not saying it needs to be done yesterday but it needs to be on the strategic horizon. Simple tricks can make it easier to start setting that data free and in our next piece we will be detailing some of those for anyone who wants to be ready for this seismic shift in our online world. In the meantime, an open door to your data vault is a good place to start.