Beyond Open Data

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Beyond Open Data

On May 17th, a small team of researchers and Ba’Yei polers set out to explore the Okavango Delta’s catchment from top to bottom. By the time the expedition team pulls their boats up into the sands of the Kalahari at the end of August, they will have paddled, pushed, and poled more than 2,000km over 100 days since their launch in the misty Angolan highlands. They will have eaten more than a thousand kilograms of beans, swatted a small army of mosquitos, and threaded their narrow mekoro through dozens of pods of angry hippopotami. They also will have collected a lot of data, all of which is freely available through an open API:

7,777 wildlife sightings, 17,822 sensor readings, 2,042 images, 105,566 GPS points, and 3.1 million heart beats so far.

When I started working on the Into the Okavango project three years ago (it’s a nine year effort), I believed that making the expedition data open would be enough. In my mind I concocted a fantasy audience, a group of JSON-savvy, conservation-minded enthusiasts just waiting to spend their evenings and weekends making fascinating things with our datasets. This is the open data dream. But with our first attempts, most of these interested parties (if they existed) were being blocked at the door, sometimes by technical barriers, but more importantly because the data didn’t offer contextual and narrative hooks that they could latch onto.

Open datasets might be fascinating, the APIs might be usable; but without any structure for story, it’s hard for anyone to make anything with them. Perhaps because of this, public data releases too often end up like teetering piles of free IKEA parts, kicked out to the curb with no instructions.

I’ve learned a lot during my work on ItO over the last three years: how to stand down a charging elephant, how to walk with cracked heals, how to say good morning in Tswana. Most imortantly, though, I’ve come to believe that open data efforts can only be most effective if they are paired with open story. (Read rest of article)

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