Why Open Data Feeds Creativity

In 2009, the Internet’s godfather Tim Berners-Lee told us to get ready for the next digital revolution—he was talking about open data. The term typically refers to information, often in terms of people and cities, that can be freely accessed, processed and redistributed by anyone. It is open data that allows you to, for instance, google where your city’s budget goes to, what kind of trees grow in your city or how much money your neighbor probably makes.

There is already an active and strong community of people working towards inventing and spreading new ways of utilizing data. We also hear frequent news about data journalism, information visualizationcrowd sourcing, and many other companions of open data. Still, many of us hardly know what open data means, or what it potentially can mean, for our creative thinking.

Open data is about sharing the power

Why would cities or any governmental organizations open data? A cynic would say that the less people know, the easier it is for administration. People demand less when they know little. For example, if politicians promised to build more bike lanes but the lanes never came, people would be left with a disappointment. A short cry about it, and then life goes on. But if people knew that at the same time the money was spent on infrastructure and roads, they might demand that bike lanes were to be prioritized.

Biggest bicycle infrastructure investments planned for 2014 in Helsinki. More than half of the annual 3.5M€ budget is targeted on a remote industrial area with almost no bicycle traffic. A blog post recently revealed that instead of building new bike lanes, the money was likely going to be used on renewing existing roads and water systems.

Distributing information is often a one-way street. You give, I receive. Someone says something, someone else listens. That is pretty much the way it is been up until now. Open data changes the process of producing information—it turns a one-way street into a loop, at best a self-correcting cycle where your idea has an audience that can react and add to the process of  information. It can change the reality the data was originally derived from.

This is exactly the kind of interaction that the administration now wants to promote. Governmental open data welcomes people into the decision-making processes. In this sense, open databanks are a gesture of transparency, a way of saying there is nothing to hide. Open data is important because information is power, and opening data is about distributing that power. Information used to be exclusive, now we all have it. How did all this happen?

The notion of open data came from the Western countries, where governments started to open their databases to public. In 2009, the Obama administration started on open data by issuing a memo on the Freedom of Information Act. And when Barack Obama does it, others follow. Now the British Government, World Bank and other political superpowers, along with Helsinki and many other European cities, are all opening up their data.

A few years ago while big governmental organizations were sharing their data to public, another kind of opening was going on. We have learned to call that leaking. In 2010, Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning) tapped into the grey area of classified information by leaking U.S. military information to Wikileaks, who published the information and marked the beginning of a new global wave—information as the most valuable asset in the world.

Over 391,000 leaked reports covering the US’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan reveal, among many other things, the exact locations of all civilian deaths in Afghanistan during 2004-2009 (shown on the map).

Of course open data is not motivated by mere good will. There is money involved. The economic value of open data is estimated to be tens of billion of euros annually in the EU. Open data is a mechanism to democratize societies, but it is also a mechanism to make profit. Some say that it was money that ultimately brought the open data movement to Finland too.

It is clear that the increasing amount of data leads to an industry of collecting, storing, managing and distributing that data. It creates jobs, another welcomed side-effect of the phenomenon. But it is still democracy that is said to receive the biggest benefit of open data.

The possibilities for open data are endless

The demands of opening data were taken to the extreme with the case of Wikileaks. It is also what started the frenzy of open data and democracy; the idea that people have the right to know.

The most common argument on behalf of open data is that it increases transparency in governance, making it easier for us to follow what is going on at the core of politics. And that itself is the core of democracy, the interest and responsibility of citizens to follow those in power and to react. Open data makes that process a lot easier (see for instance Kansan Muisti, an open service for comparing campaign statements against actual voting records of current members of the Finnish parliament).

Looking at what is being said about open data makes it sound better than gold. The expectations are high.

Open data is said to be the cure for most of society’s maladies.

That is what they say, but what can we do with open data? A million things. In an astronomical amount of data, there is also an astronomical amount of ways to turn it into applicable information.

It is hard to think of a platform that would not benefit from more information. Thanks to open data, we can better predict how the economy, cities and other complex systems will behave in the next few years. We often also stress how data makes political processes transparent (for instance the Veropuu tax tree tells you where your tax moneys goes) or how it can help solve actual problems in society.

But open data has a less serious side, too. It is a goldmine of random facts. It is how Billy Beane assembled the Oakland Athletics into a winning team. Or how a bunch of geography students made an app to check which terrace in Helsinki is in sunlight right now. We also know exactly how many people are living at the moment and, most importantly, we can check how many rats people have spotted in New York.

The possibilities are endless, but someone has to turn the data into usable products.

Open data replaces beliefs with facts

Open data refers to a publicly available set of data anyone can use as they wish. Raw data itself does not mean anything until it is processed, or cooked, as they say—until someone refines information or knowledge out of it. More than technical knowhow, this requires imagination and enthusiasm. And this is what the army of coders, graphic designers, data journalists and other open data protagonists are already doing.

The real value of open data is seen when two or more datasets are joined together, when they show or create a connection between two or more things we did not realize to link together previously. For example in the city of Zanesville, Ohio a lawyer constructed two maps—one showing the houses not connected to the municipal water service and another one occupied by black people. The correlation was more than a coincidence and led to $11M verdicts on racial discrimination.

Or if we mapped all the Restaurant Day stands against the shoreline of Helsinki (the city that promotes its coastal position as one of its major attractions), the data would reveal that when allowed to place their one-day restaurants wherever they desire, people seem to prefer locations far from the shoreline.

Three representations of the same information, Restaurant Day locations in Helsinki during 2011-2014. It is nearly impossible to identify any patterns in the raw data, whereas grouping the entries by their date into a graph already reveals the growth of the event. When placed on a map, several hotspots (and unpopular coastal areas) stand out.

One statistician could be looking at a certain dataset from his own perspective, another researcher from her own perspective. They might be looking at different data, but still be examining the same phenomenon without knowing it. Or the same data, but two different aspects of it (as the Restaurant Day example shows). Opening datasets makes it possible for someone to see that connection. The power to display those connections is a reason to start talking about a democratic mechanism.

Open data replaces beliefs with facts. That alone is healthy for democracy.

Essentially what data is about, is providing evidence for better arguments. Instead of thinking something is like it is, you can know it is, and you can prove it. Politicians can say what they want, our information channels can continue to be as they are, but every citizen has the possibility to show, claim, prove or surprise with new data, or at least with a new interpretation of old data—open data replaces beliefs with facts. That alone is healthy for democracy.

Turning open data into new ideas

Not everyone has to unlock, open or discover data in the technical meaning of the word. The fact that it is available for everyone does not mean that we all have to do it—but if there ever was a civic skill taught in schools, demanding and using data should be a part of it. Hopefully this will be the case in 2016, when programming is included in the curriculum of Finnish elementary schools.

If there ever was a civic skill taught in schools, demanding and using data should be a part of it.

People have always collected data. It has just been stored and often represented in a way that simply made us think we could not tamper with it. Now data is everywhere and it looks different than before. Instead of rows and columns we see graphs, beautiful pictures with colors and shapes.

Visualization is one of the best things that has happened to data—it makes us understand the information we are looking at. It makes us see the numbers. Literally, data visualization makes sense; approximately 70 % of our learning process is based on vision.

Open data makes connections, visualizations make us see them. What graphic designers are doing now is rebranding the work statisticians have done for years. Fusing information with design has suddenly made data as trendy as New Balance sneakers and mindfulness meditation. For that, every democracy lover, statistician and anyone interested in information should be grateful.

Still, we strongly believe everyone should know at least the basics of reading and using data. For the next level—for turning data into new ideas and thinking—we propose a crew:

  1. A researcher, a journalist, a sociologist or anyone who knows what to search for
  2. A coder or a data analyst to find and process the information
  3. A designer to make the results look good and understandable

The amount of data, be it public or private, is already equivalent to the size of space. We also have the tools and computational power for managing, processing and visualizing it. Basically, the only thing left for you is to know when, where and how to use it. That is the point when data, instead of being a boring spreadsheet, becomes an endless source of new ideas.


To hire me, request an appearance or discuss a project, please contact me via jyrki@jyrkivanamo.com, +358 50 547 0020 or LinkedIn.

With kind regards,

Signature of Jyrki Vanamo