(How to change the world with) Open Data

The end of February 2014 saw NICVA (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) hold a session on Open Data. Speakers from a range of disciplines, including journalists, statisticians and developers talked about Open Data, how it can benefit the public, and support innovation and growth.

Our very own David Rice, Rumble Labs technical director and all around nice guy, talked about how the internet's natural state is one of openness. Throughout the last decades there have been several attempts at closing what was designed to be open, and it's up to us to defend and stand up for the ideals that made the www possible.

For those of you unfortunate enough not to have seen the presentation, let's take a look at the themes David covered:

A Matter of Trust

The first question is, why have we closed our data?

There are two main culprits at play; ones relating to issues of privacy and security, and secondly, monetary reasons. Before we get back to this question, let's take a step back and take a glance at history.

Manipulation and misunderstanding of data has been a contributing factor to every single atrocity in history. If we were given access to the data (and the tools to interrogate it) we could disprove, challenge, and overthrow those who are trying to dupe and control us. This is just one of the reasons why open data is important.

Some Data Points

We have more data about the last year than the last century combined, what we do with this data is up to all of us.

The World's Largest SigInt Tool Just Got Bigger

At the time of writing, Facebook just acquired WhatsApp. How you interpret this acquisition depends on your vantage point. You can argue that for consumers, the usefulness and reach of the Facebook portfolio of products grew or you can simply see it as a grab for market share from Facebook. What the growth also means, inevitably, is increasing the amount of data spooks can collect about us. As with all tools, there are multiple uses. Some good, some not so great.


If you've posted some embarrassing pictures from the christmas party, but quickly deleted them the morning after, aren't you safe and sound? Sadly not, as delete doesn't really mean delete any more. It generally just means "keep, but don't show". Storing data is incredibly cheap, and is becoming cheaper. Finding deleted content (for those who care to look) is still hard, but getting a lot easier. So think before you share.

Minority Report

The Orwellian concept of pre-crime is becoming a reality. Storing data that could be incriminating or illegal in the future is already common practice. So when they make eating toast illegal, all those breakfast Instagrams could well throw you in jail.

Encryption, melonfarmers?

But if you've been encrypting all your communications, aren't you safe? The answer is no, just temporarily. Storing encrypted data for a future where the decryption has become possible is already common practice. Unless, of course, your encryption has already been backdoored, in which case you're all out of luck.

Whistleblowers in the Wind

The recent leaks by Edward Snowden, and previous to that, the revelations by WikiLeaks under Julian Assange did make the world a better place, but at a cost. In an ideal scenario, where you had more time and resources, ensuring that the data wasn't revealing personal information or putting people at risk would have been a priority.

Practicing safe networking

Open data is an ideal. Until we've reached a point where we have more trust, we as the public need to protect our information from being misused. There are simple things we all can do. This checklist should come in handy:

Remember, Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Corps and Govs

Through transparency and open data we can once again put trust in our government and corporations

These institutions should be accountable to people, not the other way around. We need to convince our elected representatives to stop making the data difficult to access. The best way of doing this is to convince them that it's in their best interest to do so.

Authentication is broken

Why do we need authentication in the first place? There are a number of reasons, firstly, possession; we feel the need to own stuff. We also want to be able to hold people accountable. Another aspect is the assertion that rule breakers are — albeit to varying degrees — criminals. Deeper down, the underpinning of the whole argument relies on the idea that theft exists if, and only if, things are worth stealing. Money, and the unequal distribution of wealth ensures this cycle repeats. As the astute reader already has observed, the issues run deep into the very constructs of civilised society, but just because there won't be an easy fix doesn't mean it's not an compelling problem to try to solve.

Publish openly and widely

For the short and long term, we need to consider how we publish our data. There are no discernible overheads in publishing your data in a range of applicable formats, e.g. CSV, XML, JSON, and the advantages of doing so are immense, as it allows the re-purposing of and building upon the data. Adhere to REST principles; build services, not applications, and don't lock raw data away. Feel dirty and ashamed if you lock your data away in a PDF. Have a long, long shower and scrub yourself if you put your information in a Word document.

What NI can gain from data

Northern Ireland is a small place, it also has a big and heavily subsidised public sector. We can, and should, put this to good use: make Northern Ireland a prototype for good, open government structures.

We, as engineers, can help solve many problems, not just in our own society, but in the world as a whole. We used to be known for our world-class engineering prowess, we're no longer building the largest ocean liners in the world, but there are other amazing modern day engineering projects we can put our hands to.

Let's put Belfast on the map as a place where ground-breaking open data projects can and are allowed to happen.

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