The Data Divide: Some Positive Developments

Posted on July 19, 2011

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Thanks to Rollie Colle for bringing a new development at the US Department of Labour to my attention.

eWeek.com introduces the development as follows:

The U.S. Department of has launched a set of new online tools for software developers to tap into DOL data for use in applications.

The DOL’s new first-of-its-kind federal Website is aimed at making it easier for software developers to incorporate Labor Department data into online and mobile applications. The site features published APIs (application program interfaces) and SDKs (software development kits) that enable developers to remotely access data collected by the department.

The tools, available at http://developer.dol.gov, are part of the Labor Department’s ongoing efforts to increase transparency, participation and collaboration through the administration’s Open Government Initiative, Labor Department officials said.

The eWeek site goes on to quote DoL as follows:

“While a handful of other federal agencies are making data available through one or more APIs, the inclusion of SDKs is a federal first,” said Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, in a statement. “By doing so, we’re lowering the technical barriers and providing developers of all experience levels the opportunity to turn good ideas into powerful software applications for the American public.”

What I find so positive about this is that the DoL is taking the issue of a potential Data Divide seriously and is devoting some of its development resources to responding by providing tools that those with more limited technical experience can use to design applications for using DoL data. (If this were happening a couple of months from now I’ld even try to claim credit based on my suggestion that 10% of the investment in an Open Data initiative be assigned to ensuring a basis for broad opportunities for “effective data use” which this clearly seems to be. :))

Also, following on from my earlier blogposts on the Data Divide and Open Government Data, Tracey Lauriault introduced herself to me and I discovered through her that there was a very active “community data movement (consortium”  and a new NGO (Community Data Canada) right under my nose here in Canada. Tracey has done an excellent but as yet unpublished report documenting some of this but I’ld like to point to two specific cases that she highlights, in advance and then I’ll at a later point, when Tracey’s paper is out, do a longer discussion.

The sites are EMIS — Espace Montréalais d’information sur la santé (in French) and Saskatoon’s CommunityView Collaboration. Both of these are designed to provide opportunities for active data use and some manipulation by the non-specialist end user.

The Saskatoon site particularly, provides effective (video based) training programs for the reasonably data literate user. Through these there is access to interactive maps and other data sets specifically of interest to those at the community level (primarily I would guess professionals like planners or social workers) interested in local level planning and particularly social planning.  Not surprisingly the site was developed by the local social planning council and is an extremely good model for how to start some of those local processes of data use.

The EMIS site is sponsored by the Province of Quebec and focuses primarily on health data.  This site probably provides more opportunities for “activist” use particularly around health and environmental issues but doesn’t seem as easy to manipulate or as visually user friendly. As well, there isn’t so far as I could see, any indication on the site as to how the site might actually be linking in practice with the broader potential user community in Quebec.

What is interesting about all three of these sites is that they are taking the issue of making their data available and usable by the non-professional end user very seriously and are putting significant resources in that direction. Tracey tells me that in fact there is something of a “community data movement” in Canada which has been around for a number of years (focusing particularly I believe, on maps and mapping). My plan is to start monitoring those developments more closely and hopefully start to bring about some sort of active linkage between the community informatics community and the community data communities as their interests and objectives seem to be converging at a fairly rapid rate.

One thing that all three sites seem to lack is an evident involvement by end users in the design of the data, the sites or the tools being presented through the sites.  It would be very interesting to, for example, work with a local anti-poverty or anti-homeless activist group (in the case of the Saskatoon site), health or environmental community (or activist) organizations in the case of the EMIS site, or labour or organizations of the unemployed (in the case of the DoL site) and have their input into the design of the site, the selection of the data being provided, the design and selection of the tools and so on. Any of this may have occurred on any of these sites but there isn’t, based on my casual review, any evidence that this has happened. My guess is that the result might have been even more user useful than what is there now, although in all three cases these are excellent beginnings.

One final observation based on a review of the above is that expecting governments to take Data Divide considerations into their planning should be much less costly and onerous than for example, engaging them in responding to Digital Divide issues.  Developing applications or application support software, community/grassroots oriented data access/use websites, non-professional oriented video training programs all go quite some way to overcoming the Data Divide while being very much cheaper and easier to accomplish than the quite significant infrastructure and site developments that have been the primary approach to resolving the Digital Divide in many regional and national environments.

I would be very pleased to get information on any other sites or strategies for responding to the “Data Divide” as others might come across these.