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Afraid for Open Data

After visiting two Open Data related events in Amsterdam, Apps4nl and Open Innovation Festival, I found myself being afraid of what I had to conclude after these events. This might raise some eyebrows, coming from someone who claims to be a Linked Data enthusiast, and then blogging about being afraid for Open Data.

The primary reason that got me started with Linked Data were the problems I saw with the lack of operational access to information. When I needed to explain this problem to the board of directors of the Fire Department Amsterdam I had to explain this in a non technical way.

My fear

To express the problems I saw in the current situation of information management at operational level, I decided to formulate it as a fear:

During an operational incident an accident will happen where me or one of my colleagues will get injured or killed. Then after an investigation we will come to the conclusion that we had all the information available to prevent the accident from happening, but we just did not have the means to access it.

I considered this to be a very bold statement. But to my surprise it was acknowledged by some of the board members and I got green light for my experiments. Although we primarily focused on the data available in the organization, it is not that hard to draw the exact same conclusion for data available at the partners of the Fire Department.

The fear basically consists of two parts:

  1. Although the data might be available, the interfaces and devices at operational level are not capable of accessing it
  2. The information is available but not accessible digitally by machines to be used at operational level

Point 2 is exactly where the whole open data movement comes in to play. Wouldn’t it be great if we could access partner data while we drive to an incident? Let me illustrate this with an example.

If buildings are under control of Fire Department Inspectors because of their usage it should be possible to get the status on those permits in the organization. However there are numerous situations where the Fire Department does not require a permit for the building. That of course does not mean there are no problems with the building. If they would be able to access this information straight at district level they could solve this problem.

I am aware of a project in the Netherlands called DBK “Digital Object Map” which promises exactly that, but does so in a traditional closed model legacy system. That might have worked about 6 years ago, but with the current high interest for Open Data movements, it is smarter to ride that wave instead of forcing all the different districts, we need to deal with, to use a single purpose proprietary system.

So now that data becomes available, what is it that I am so afraid for? The current approach a lot of local governments take is the ‘Over the hedge’ method, we extract a dataset from our systems, put it on-line free to use, problem solved. That is not going to help us as this means we always have to rely on two important factors, the data is updated frequently, and we implement the changes in the right places as well. That is not a sustainable way to make me feel save again.

Linked Data

If a Fire Department wants to literally put the lives of their Fire Fighters in the hands of data, they cannot accept that the data they use is based on an occasionally exported dataset of which they hope the latest version is made available. There needs to be a possibility to query the source of the information directly, which will expose a dataset that is self explanatory, or at least gives the possibility to infer the relationships in that dataset . That dataset should of course reflect the real time situation of the source data!

Steps to take

It is really great that so many governmental organizations are opening up their data of course, but now that this topic is so high on the agenda we should dare to take the final step as well! Link the data! Make it sustainable and not just a simple dump. Only then organizations like the Fire Department Amsterdam-Amstelland can really take full benefit of all the efforts that have been put in this Open Data movement.

Linked Data Now!