February 10, 2010

Britain and America's "First Geeks"

This weeks edition of the Economist contains a long article on the suddenly hot topic of "Open Data". The subhead sums up the issue like this:

In several countries more official data are being issued in raw form so that anybody can use them. This forces bureaucrats and creative types to interact in new ways.

and the article points out that:

The governments of America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand have all produced collections of machine-readable data.

In several countries political leaders now talk the same language as campaigners for transparent government. On his first full day in office, Barack Obama signed an open-government directive. David Cameron, the leader of Britain’s Conservatives, wants to increase his country’s transparency to tame the over-mighty state, for which he blames the present Labour government. In Australia Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party also took power with a strong commitment to open government.

It seems that Mr. Cameron neglected to point out that the UK's present Labour government has in fact just taken a huge step in his desired direction. Last month a website cryptically entitled data.gov.uk entered public beta testing.  As the Economist points out the US equivalent site, strangely enough called data.gov, has been around for a while longer. Open Government initiatives, including Open Data, are taking the world by storm!  According to the Economist:

All these exercises seek to merge two cultures: the risk-averse ethos of the civil service, and the free-wheeling spirit of open-source developers, who seek continuous incremental change and see failure as a step to improvement. In a way that would baffle most old-time bureaucrats, independent developers like to collaborate over long distances and make their exchanges public.

In the US the "young technocrats" in the Obama administration responsible for trying to merge these two apparently incompatible cultures are chief information officer Vivek Kundra and chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, whom the Economist dub "America's First Geeks".  The Economist article mentions one of Britain's First Geeks also, the talismanic Sir Tim Berners-Lee. So talismanic in fact, that in the original version of the article the Economist credited Sir Tim with being "inventor of the internet", rather than "merely" inventor of the world wide web. For some unaccountable reason the Economist neglects to mention Professor Nigel Shadbolt, Britain's other first geek and colleague of Sir Tim's in the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, where coincidentally I spent as long as I possibly could in my younger days.

Here at econnexus.org.uk we are as excited as Gordon Brown by the prospect of vast quantities of open data becoming available for analysis by anyone who so chooses. In fact we've already come up with an exciting new project of our own to help us in making that often difficult decision about whether it's worth going surfing or not.

We'll keep you posted on how things develop, for all the Open Data initiatives as well as our own experiments in mining something useful from this newly available mountain of extremely raw information.

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