This week the Center for Data Innovation and the Sunlight Foundation held an event on “The Social Impact of Open Data” in which Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen discussed her agency’s efforts to promote open data availability and use. The event also included a panel featuring Emily Shaw, the National Policy Manager at the Sunlight Foundation; Bryan Rayburn, lead data scientist of Baltimore-based health symptom checking software company Symcat; and Sandra Moscoso, a deputy program manager at the World Bank.
Commissioner Ohlhausen discussed the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) tripartite approach to open data. The first aspect of her approach is taking a realistic attitude toward data analysis, recognizing the benefits and shortcomings of the technologies and employing human verification of algorithmic recommendations and predictions where necessary. The second aspect is mitigating privacy risks associated with data releases, which she said her agency would address with techniques including de-identification and limitations on harmful uses of data. The third aspect is promoting a culture in government that embraces big data and open data. Ohlhausen stressed the importance of focusing enforcement efforts on specific harmful uses of data that are occurring today, rather than attempting to predict future harms.
Moscoso offered examples of the social benefits of open data as realized in the education and development sectors. In general, she said that open data can lead to improved governance, support citizen rights, and promote inclusive development across different groups of citizens. In education, data can be used to simplify the complicated process of school choice, fuel advocacy efforts, and promote resource sharing among educators. Moscoso discussed local Washington, D.C. efforts to survey citizens on proposed changes to school boundaries and release the resulting data openly. She also mentioned a data-driven education reform effort in Moldova, which monitors education services in 100 of the nation’s schools and offers budget data for third-party analysis.
Shaw compared open data to access to the seashore in the United States, which the government maintains for public use. She urged agencies and other stakeholders to communicate about open data in five main ways. These included communicating about successes, such as successful open data programs; communicating about shared goals between data producing organizations; communicating about data needs; communicating about data problems, such as quality or cost concerns; and communicating with new people to find partners for open data initiatives.
Finally, Rayburn discussed his company’s efforts to process health data and the opportunity to aggregate data people collect about themselves, through wearable devices, quantified self tracking systems, and other means. Rayburn noted that one of the major challenges data analysis organizations face is integrating data from multiple disparate sources into something actionable. He compared the current state of big data with a newborn baby opening its eyes for the first time: there are many data streams in the form of rods and cones in the baby’s eyes, but the baby does not yet fully perceive objects it sees. The lesson, Rayburn said, is that organizations must use data streams together in a holistic way to make better decisions.
The speakers’ presentations attested to the fact that organizations in a broad range of fields are using or interested in using open data, and that with a little coordination and communication the government can help turn this interest into more action and yield more insights. Open data is rapidly becoming available. The next step is capturing more of the social benefits it can offer.