Democracy, Public Data, and Data.gov

Dictators

It’s not quite the National Data Agency I envisioned earlier this year, but Data.gov is now live. It’s a laudable effort, and there is quite a bit of data there, but it’s still very labor-intensive to get the data sets and convert them into usable formats. But it’s becoming clear that data needs to be shared, and that access to government data will soon be regarded as much as an inherent part of a democracy as free elections.

A lot of the data is available in shape files. Many of the data sets have a geographic component, but why does the map portion have to dictate the file format? There are lots of libraries for reading these files and the accompanying (stone-age) dbf-files, but they require an additional conversion step. A simple CSV file would be much more useful.

Data.gov’s selection of data is quite limited at the moment, and the search function is not very helpful. As the amount of data increases, the search will hopefully get some attention. Another thing I am missing is an RSS feed to subscribe to in order to learn about new data getting added to the site. But it’s data, it’s available, and it’s reasonably well documented.

Actual data is much better than the Excel tables from reports that can be found in many places. The problem with such tables is that they are pre-digested and do not contain all the data. Summary statistics are useful for reports, but the point of providing the data is to enable people to make their own discoveries. They can’t do that with a bunch of tables.

Much has been written lately about the death of newspapers and journalism. Published data is not going to replace investigative journalism, but it will add new facets to it. And it will perhaps make a new kind of reporting possible that is based purely on data. What that will look like remains to be seen, but it will certainly involve visualization.

Releasing data like this is a sign that the new U.S. administration is confident in what it is doing, and comfortable with the idea of people digging around in the data. Of course, they still have control over what gets released, but it’s hard to imagine the same kind of openness in the cold-war-like climate of the previous eight years. Poking around some data will also make people hungry for more, and they will – hopefully – demand more. And when the stream of data starts to dry up, there will perhaps be an outcry. Hopefully. One can dream.

This is the reason for including the teaser image and the following three larger versions. It’s difficult to appreciate these when they are too small. They are clever. They engender hope. And they are topical.

Dictator 1

Dictator 2

Dictator 3

They were created for the International Society for Human Rights by the German ad agency Ogilvy and Mather. The only source of the images I am aware of is a Spanish news website, but they are not the original source.

In any case, they are a great use of representation in photography, and they point in the right direction. Al this fancy technology may serve a higher purpose, after all.

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Robert Kosara

Robert Kosara is Senior Research Scientist at Tableau Software, and formerly Associate Professor of Computer Science. His research focus is the communication of data using visualization. In addition to blogging, Robert also runs and tweets.

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