NC Datapalooza 2013: Why publicly available data is innovative

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If you live in the southeastern US (aka the Bible Belt) as I do, you’ve probably been to a church revival or two (or twenty). Revival is an event intended to light a fire under the 'faithful,' as opposed to the newcomer. As I sat at NC Datapalooza last week, I felt that I was in a revival, without the obvious religious overtones, of course. I was amazed at how far the Raleigh area has come in terms of understanding and accepting open data principles.

There is now a dedicated 'congregation,' if you will, of believers who are 'evangelizing' about making public data available in human and machine-readable formats who never existed here three years ago. NC Datapalooza was an event hosted by local entrepreneurial groups HQ Raleigh and Forward Impact to connect local experts, innovators, and entrepreneurs to relevant, clean data drawn from federal, state, and local resources. In addition to the speakers and networking that you expect from most conferences, the event featured a competition for teams developing applications using open data.

Technology to release and distribute data

Ian Kalin, Director of Open Data at Socrata, opened strong, pointing out that, "Open data is not new. Museums and libraries have long centralized data for people to access. Technology simply provides new ways to distribute and access data."

That technology, though, has changed dramatically in the past few years, according to Marshall Brain, the founder of HowStuffWorks.   Just a couple of decades ago, he was in college using such innovative technology as the slide rule and punch cards. It’s hard to believe that Wikipedia, Open StreetMap, as well as companies like Amazon and Google, didn’t exist a mere 20 years ago. So it may be understandable that we are still behind on 'liberating' data that governments have been collecting for centuries. "Data is trapped in a database," said Brain. "When it bursts, entrepreneurs can do so much with it. In just a few [3] short years, Data.gov has posted 295 APIs."

"Releasing the data into the wild will result in great things," Brain adds. But no one can predict what those great things are. "No one ever thought GPS [technology] would lead to precision crop farming," added Kalin. "We don’t know everything that the data can create."

Winners of open data competition

Three teams exemplifying that principle then presented their inventions built using open data, competing for a cash prize and an opportunity to pitch to venture capitalists at the CED Tech Venture Conference. The ideas included a smartphone app to find parking in downtown; WATERbeat, a device that attaches to a residential water cuff that provides real-time flow data to reduce waste; and BetaVersity, a resource discovery tool for college students to find community and campus resources to help with their invention or business creation. All three were well received by the crowd and judges, but the parking app was selected as the best use of open data.

Making data easily available

Gunnar Hellekson, Chief Technology Strategist for Red Hat’s US Public Sector, gave the crowd some final food for thought. He used electricity as an example of a once-experimental technology that was attractive only to hobbyists and a few scientists who could never have foreseen its impact today.

Eventually, devices to harness electric current were created that brought electricity to the average household. Once electricity became the norm, innovation was rapid. "When you make something easily available," he said, "that’s when something gets interesting. We wouldn’t have washing machines or all the small electrics in our house if electricity weren’t ubiquitously available."

The point, then, is that making data open and publicly available may not seem particularly innovative in and of itself, particularly as more governments hop on the open data bandwagon. But once such policies are ubiquitous, hobbyists, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs will use the data to create new applications that we’ve not yet dreamed of.

Regional events like NC Datapalooza demonstrate the growing trend towards community-powered innovation. They also help to reignite believers to "keep the faith" until open data policies become the norm in the government setting. We may not be able to predict how the data will be used, but history has shown that the results will be worth the effort.

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