Image Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1160561
If you’re in the classroom, testing a hypothesis from one of your books then you already know the drill. You probably have a good idea of the result you’re looking for, so you follow the procedure, and hey presto: you get what you’re looking for. Of course, that’s not the end of the story. It may just have been a happy accident, so you try it again, and again, to make sure the results match the theory.
Science thrives on information. And in an information age we should have endless screeds of data. Our computers track everything from our spending history to the number of files we generate in a day. Governments and local authorities record information on everything from the average age of motorcycle accident victims to detailed information on the kind of foods we import and consume.
Yet, because of the nature of much scientific research, data is often locked away. Sometimes, it’s because someone tightly guards it, hoping to make their name with their results and their discovery. Sometimes, it’s locked away because it has been commissioned and paid for by commercial organizations that, quite rightly, wish to protect their intellectual property.
But in other instances it’s for a simpler reason. Scientists, like the rest of us, often work in a bubble. A chemist may not realize the raw results of his or her work into nano-particles could be of equal interest to a marine biologist looking into the composition of the oceans. Specialization is exactly that. It means knowing an incredible amount about your subject. But that can also imply not knowing so much about somebody else’s.
And then there’s the simple issue of compatibility. How is that data recorded and in what form is it stored? Is it in an electronic or online-friendly form or is it scrawled long hand into the notebooks of dozens of researchers? Sharing data means finding storage formats that are not only commonplace and accessible but can easily be searched and cross-referenced, preferably by a computer.
But things are improving. While the scientific community is making its own quiet steps towards sharing data, governments and citizens are making strides. A growing Open Data Movement has taken root in cities from Vancouver in Canada to New York to the UK’s Manchester.
At first glance the information can seem trivial. How many trees are planted every year and where? Where are the crime hotspots? Schools and traffic data. Refuse collection. Planning data. At first glance it is just numbers. But the real magic occurs where data sets intersect. Is there a correlation between road accidents and the placement of schools? What factors are special about areas with high crime rates? Do people have a better standard of living in greener areas?
In our app-powered world this information can be used in ways that were almost unimaginable a few years ago. From augmented reality apps that are synchronized to real time public transport data to apps that tell you all you need to know about your city block, from its crime statistics to its schools performance to the diversity of its retail centres. While they may not be terrific money-spinners in the vein of apps like the game Angry Birds, their impact on the lives of the citizens of these environments can be very real.
And by opening up that data and promoting the use of common storage and file formats it makes it easy for scientists and behaviourists to access a vast and growing database of information that might supplement or even form the basis for their own research. Beyond that, it sends a powerful message across the world to unlock and share data that matters to us all.