Mapitude: Looking ahead at open, public data
1st June 2010
The Saturday before last, Digital Birmingham were happy to sponsor Andrew McKenzie’s Mapitude day at Aquila TV. This followed on from the successful Hackitude event held there in December last year. Both of these events are based on the idea that if data is released to the public then we will be excited enough by it to create stuff.
Andrew put together a really interesting programme of events over the day, under his strapline of it being a “workshop to develop understanding and practical collaboration between web developers and mappers.” There was one group of people getting excited and making things and another group who were exchanging presentations about mapping.
I wasn’t able to make the event, but speaking to Andrew afterwards he was really enthusiastic about what was achieved. The people getting excited included Chris Taggart of Openly Local and Stuart Harrison of Lichfield – Open Data who focused on the application building, along with Gavin Wray, Michael Grimes and Heidi Blanton who worked on locating the data and constructing the webpage that uses the application to display it.
What is most impressive about the Ward Mapper is that it is accessing multiple resources on the web to find the data and then presenting them together on the page. Unlike so many of the things I look at that people tell me are mash-ups, this really does mash up data. And it does it in a way that makes it, if not completely trivial, then certainly a whole lot easier, to pull in comparator data from other sources.
Now, the BBC have been showing an excellent series about the history of maps. In particular it has been exploring how maps can be tools of political power and persuasion. One of the clearest examples of this is the controversy caused by the Gall-Peters Projection, which was promoted as a more accurate view of the world than the standard Mercator projection. The main complaint about Mercator is that it exaggerates the size of regions in proportion to how far they are from the equator. As less developed countries also tend to be closer to the equator Peters argued that it diminishes their importance.
The reason I mention this is that with the wider availability of mapping tools, including the recently released Ordnance Survey Open Data sets, more of us will have the ability to create our own maps. And that represents a power shift, and not necessarily one that we can easily predict the effects of.
So, through work like Mapitude, we could see a whole new type of campaigning website; one that uses data collected by public services to question the delivery of the very services they provide. It has the potential to be really interesting, for it to inform people at a much richer level of detail about public service provision and to be highly disruptive.
We have also seen our new government push the open data agenda with its plans to release data on public expenditure, including all council spending of £500 or more. With the need for budget cuts then it is clear that politicians will be really keen to see the public identifying areas of public expenditure which they would like to see cut.
A crowdsourced budget would bring many challenges to a public sector organisation. What will we do if members of the public form groups and use the newly open data to question the provision of services to marginalised groups? It is certainly possible to imagine challenges to services to refugees and asylum seekers or gay teenagers as examples of this.
Many of us who make the case for open data promote all of the benefits of doing it, but I think we do need to recognise that it also presents some difficult challenges ahead as well.