Open Data Hackday

There is an open data movement afoot. Now. Around the world. — Tim Berners-Lee on TED, Feb. 2010

That was certainly the sentiment I felt at last weekend’s Open Data Hackday. The two-day meet-up for geeks, journalists, and data liberators pushed against solid challenges: How can we improve existing projects with open data, and how can we get more?

There was slew of great apps and mash-ups presented. Christian Kreuz introduced Frankfurt Gestalten (Create Frankfurt) which is a platform connecting local information services to political decisions via geodata and keyword tags. Citizens can set up email alerts on certain areas or topics and submit ideas to improve their neighborhoods. Maps help visualize local debates and track municipal changes. The challenges Christian faces, however, are not getting traffic or even access to the data. Instead, he wonders, how can he get people really engaged on the platform, and use it more than just as a reference but a forum for debate. The tool is already in place in several cities in Hessen, and plans are underway to document the system so it can be more easily replicated.

A way to bump up involvement in such projects is to connect with journalists. A weakness in many of the apps presented over the weekend is the divide between the hackers who pull the sites together and the journalists who can channel the importance of the apps and use them to inform reports. Although there was a talk about Coding for Data-Journalism, enough cases haven’t been made in Germany to convince journalists and other public-facing professionals about the power of open data.

The UK, for example, is faring better in this regard. The Guardian is a huge backer of open data and its benefits to the public. They hosted Rewired, a series of events where hackers could build informative tools and demonstrate the power of opening government data (a similar and equally cool event was held in the Netherlands, Hack de Overheid). The Guardian also publishes pieces about the impact and analysis of opened information, linking to raw data to supports their stories.

There’s no data.gov yet in Germany, but the participants at Open Data Hackday were talking a fair bit about OffeneData.de, which is a community-driven effort to add datasets and encourage mash-up competitions. The site Is It Open?, run by the Open Knowledge Foundation, makes it easy to query data holders about whether the data is open or not, and document it for public reference. It should be noted that OKF is a real leader in bringing these groups together, setting up fantastic tools, and thinking creatively to further these efforts. There is a philosophical licensing difference between OKF and CC as it concerns data, but enough digital ink has been spilled elsewhere on that. For the growth of the German open data community, this is fortunately not a licensing debate (it was a breath of fresh air to not hear a single copyright question the entire weekend!). Instead, it’s important to write running code and convince the public (as well as journalists and politicians) of open data’s important.

Another great example of good code was Mapnificent, a map of Berlin with interactive layers. Check out its public transport layer and the Konjunkturmap, which shows where public funding went from Konjunkturpaket (Recovery Package).

Also in the line-up was Pippi Longstrings, a beta project supported by the Swedish Pirate Party to expose “law exports”, phrases that enter the law via lobbying. Using text compare and leaked documents, one can track which private interest paper provided the wording in treaties like ACTA. More features are forthcoming, which could make this a power and revealing tool.

Uberblic.org was a neat demonstration of linked data. Pulling from infoboxes on sites like Wikipeida, foursquare, last.fm, and many more, uberblic is a speedy way to connect pieces of data and follow their relationships with RDF. It also has support to show the licensing conditions of each dataset queried.

All in all, a fun gathering post-re:publica. Thanks to all the speakers for the inspiration and to the team for organizing it! I hope 2010 becomes Germany’s year of open data.

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