Last October, I was driving home from a hackathon when I heard something extraordinary on the radio. Now, as human beings, we tend to get over-excited by coincidence - it’s a particular cognitive bias called the frequency illusion - you buy a gold station wagon and suddenly you see gold station wagons everywhere (yes, that’s my gold station wagon behind me). But that being said, I still contend that there was something special about what I heard and when I heard it. Because you don’t hear people talking about Open Data on the radio very often.
So here’s the brief backstory. The local technology incubator in partnership with the local hackerspace that I’m involved with was co-hosting a week long hackathon to celebrate Science and Technology Week. I was just returning from its kick-off event where I had just given a presentation on the role of licensing in Open Data. This particular hackathon was a judged event, with the three top prizes being a smart watch, admission to an app commercialization seminar, and an exclusive dinner with an expert in the commercialization of apps -- which was kind of odd since the data sets that were provided for the event were sets like pollution monitoring data from the Detroit River, but hey - that’s the part of the challenge of making commercial apps out of open data.
While it has been said that we are now living in the age of Big Data, only the smallest subset of that data is explicitly licensed in such a way that we the citizen can have access and can make use of it without having to ask permission or buy a license. I’m the lead of Open Data Windsor Essex and much of my role involves explaining what Open Data is because it’s not largely understood. Because I’m talking to my fellow librarians, I’m going to give you a very abbreviated version of my standard Open Data explainer:
One of the most common definitions of Open Data comes from the Open Knowledge Foundation: Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone - subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.
So, using this definition, a creative commons license of CC-BY : which means that the work has been designated in the creative commons as free to use without requiring permission as long as there is attribution is given is considered Open Data. But CC-NC which stands for Creative Commons Non-Commercial is not considered Open Data because the domain of use has been restricted.
We in librarianship talk a lot about open source, and open access, but even we don’t talk about open data very much. So that’s why I was so surprised when there was a conversation coming from my car radio on the importance of Open Data. Granted, I was listening to campus Radio - but still, I think I reserve the right to be impressed by how the stars seemed to have aligned just for me.
The show I was listening to was Paul Chislett’s The Shake Up on CJAM and he was interviewing Paula Z. Segal, the lead executive of a Brooklyn-based organization called 596 Acres. Her organization builds online tools that makes use of Open Data to allow neighbours to find the vacant public land hidden in plain sight in the city as the first step in the process of turning them into shared resources, such as community gardens. Perhaps not surprising to you now, but in 2011 there was 596 acres of such empty lots in Brooklyn alone.
Segal was telling the radio host and the listening audience that many communities make data - such as data that describes what land is designated for what purpose - open and accessible to its residents. However, most citizens don’t know that the data exists because the data is contained in obscure portals, and if even if they did find the data, they generally do not understand how to handle the data, how to make sense of it and how to make it meaningful to their experiences.
Now when I heard that and whenever I hear similar complaints that the promise of Open Data has failed because it tends to add power to already powerful, I keep thinking the same thing - this is a job for librarians.
It reminds me of this quote from open government advocate, David Eaves:
We didn’t build libraries for a literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have public policy literate citizens, we build them so that citizens may become literate in public policy.
This brings us to the theme of this morning’s talk- which is not Open Data - although I will express today's theme through it largely because I’m back from a year’s sabbatical immersed in the topic and it’s still difficult for me to not talk about it. No, today I would like to make a case for a creating a nationwide program to put more librarians into more communities and into more community organizations. I have to warn you that I'm not going to give you any particulars about what shape or scope of what such a program could be; I'm just going to try to make a case for such an endeavor. I haven't even thought of a good name for it. The best I can come up with is Librarianing for America. On that note, I would like to give a shout-out to Chris Bourg for - if not coining the word librarianing - for at least, bringing to my attention.
And I very much hope that perchance the stars will align again and this theme will complement the work that I am very much looking forward to hearing today at Online Northwest : about digitally inclusive communities, about designing and publishing, about being embedded, about sensemaking through visualization, about enhancing access and being committed to outreach.
Before I continue I feel I should disclose that I’m not actually American. I grew up across the river from Port Huron, Michigan and I now live across the river from Detroit, Michigan. I literally can see Detroit from my house.
And Detroit is the setting for my next story.
A quick aside first - my research interest in open data has been largely focused on geospatial data as well as the new software options and platforms that are making web mapping much more accessible and viable for individuals and community groups when compared to the complex geographic information systems commonly known as GIS - that institutions such as city governments and academic libraries tend to exclusively support.
I mention this as a means to explain why I decided to crash the inaugural meeting of Maptime Detroit that happened in early November last year.
Maptime is time designated to making maps. It is the result of kind volunteers who find a space, designate a time, and extend an open invitation to anyone who is interested to drop in and learn about making maps. It started in San Francisco a couple of years ago and now there are over 40 Maptime Chapters around the world.
Now, when I went to the first Maptime Detroit event, there wasn’t actually any time given to make maps. For this inaugural meeting, instead there was a set of speakers who were already using mapping in their work.
Not very many people know that Detroit has an amazing history of citizen mapping initiatives - the map behind me is from The Detroit Geographical Expedition from their work Field Notes Three from 1970. I think you could make a case that another kind of community mapping outreach work is starting to emerge again through the many community initiatives that are supported by mapping that is happening in Detroit today.
Many of the organizations who are doing community mapping work were presenting at Maptime Detroit including Justin Wedes, an organizer from the Detroit Water Brigade.
As you might already know, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013 with debts somewhere between $18 to $20 billion dollars. The city is collapsing upon itself at a scale that’s very difficult to wrap one’s mind around.
The Detroit Water and Sewage Department is currently conducting mass water shut offs in the city which will affect over 120,000 account holders over an 18 month period at a rate of 3,000 per week. This will account for over 40% of customers who are using the Detroit Water system. As 70,000 of those accounts are residential accounts, it is thought that 200,000-300,000 people could be directly affected.
The Detroit Water Brigade coordinates volunteers efforts in the distribution of bottled water to affected neighbours as well as acts an advocate for the UN recognized human right to water on behalf of Detroiters.
But at Maptime Detroit, Justin Wedes didn’t begin his talk with his work in Detroit. Instead he began his presentation by speaking about of his experiences with Occupy Sandy. In October of 2012, while New York’s FEMA offices were closed due to bad weather, veterans from the Occupy Wall Street community came forward and used their organization skills to mobilize ground support for those who needed it most. At first, Occupy Sandy was using free online services such Google Spreadsheets and Amazon’s Web Registry to collect and redistribute donations but by the end of their work, they had started using the exact same software that the city of New York uses for dispatching resources during disasters.
Wedes described the work of the Detroit Water Brigade and as he did so, he also told us how very different his experiences were in Detroit as compared to his ones in New York after Superstorm Sandy. After Sandy hit, he told us, those New Yorkers who could help their more badly damaged neighbours did so with great enthusiasm and that help was well received. With the water shutoffs in Detroit, however, Justin feels there is an underlying sense of shame in accepting help and the response from the community at large is more restrained. When he said this, the first thing that came to my mind was an article I had read years ago by Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s Magazine. In that article, which was later expanded into a book called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Solnit makes an observation humanity opens itself to great compassion and community when a disaster is brought on by weather but this capacity is strikingly less so when that disaster is man-made.
There are many reasons why this water shut-off situation in Detroit came about and I'm not going to go into them, largely because I don't fully understand how things got to become so dire. I just want to draw attention to the tragic dynamic at hand: as the problems of Detroit grow - due to less people being about to pay for an increasingly costly and crumbling infrastructure, the capacity of the city government to deal with the worsening situation in turn, is also reduced.
What I believe should be of particular interest to us, as librarians, is that there has been a collective response from the philanthropic, non-profit community organizations along with businesses and start-ups to help Detroit through the collection and sharing of city data for the benefit of the city as a whole. Data Driven Detroit does collect and host open data, but it also hosts datasets that are collected from public and private sources as a means to create “clear communication channels back and forth between the public, the government, and city service providers.”
Code for America believes it can help government be more responsive to its residents by embedding those who can read and write code into the city government itself. It formed in 2009 and it works by enlisting technology and design professionals to work with city governments in the United States in year long fellowships in order to build open-source applications that promote openness, participation, and efficiency in government.
In other words, it's a combination of service and app building that is paid for by the city, usually with the help of corporate sponsors. Each year Code for America selects 8-10 local government partners from across the US and 24-30 fellows for the program through a competitive application process.
In 2012, the Knight Foundation and Kellogg Foundation funded three Code for America fellows for a residency in Detroit. These Code for America fellows worked with the Detroit Department of Transportation to release a real-time transit API and build the TextMyBus bus notification system which launched in September of that year.
In addition to TextMyBus, the fellows also built an app called Localdata to standardize location-based data collected by data analysts and community groups. "Localdata offers a mobile collection tool with a map interface as well as a paper collection option that can be scanned and uploaded for data syncing." This particular project joined the Code for America Incubator and has since expanded into a civic tech startup company.
In my mind, Code for America can be thought of as a scaled up version of a civic hackathon. If you aren't familiar with hackathons, they are a generally weekend affair in which participants work solo or in groups to code a website or app that ostensibly solves a problem. Sometimes there are prizes and sometimes the event is designed as a means to generate the first concept of a potential start-up. Hackathons can be a good thing - you might remember from the beginning of my talk that I sometimes help out with them which I means that I endorse them - but I do admit that that have their limits (many of which are described in this blog post behind me). For one, it’s simply not reasonable to expect that a weekend of hacking is going to result in a wonderful app that will meet the needs of users that the programmers have likely not even met. But, with good event design that strives incorporates mentorship, workshops, and opportunities to meet with potential users of said apps, hackathons can be a great start towards a future collaborations.
Code for America also incorporates mentorship and training into its process. Those selected for a fellowship begin at an institute in San Francisco where fellows receive training about how local government and agencies work, how to negotiate and communicate as well as how to plan, and focus their future code work. That being said, Code for America has its own limitations as well. This particular article gently suggests that Code for America may - in some instances - seem to benefit the fellows involved more than the cities themselves. For one, it costs a city a lot of money - $440,000 - just to support a set of Code for America fellows for a year and then, after they leave, the city needs to be able to have the capacity to support the care and feeding of the open source apps that have been left behind.
Which makes me think.
If only... if only....
If only there were people who could also help cities help their communities who didn’t have to be flown in and disappear after a year. If there was only some group of people who could partner with cities and their residents who already had some experience and expertise in open data licensing, and who understood the importance of standardizing descriptors in datasets, who were driven to improve better user experience, and who understood that data use requires data literacy which demands both teaching and community outreach.
Friends, this is work that we - librarians can be doing. And our communities need us. Our cities need us.
Furthermore, I don't know whether you've noticed but every year emerges another an amazing class of passionate and talented freshly minted librarians and we are simply not building enough libraries to put them in.
So I think it’s time to work towards making our own Librarianing for America.
I don’t think it’s possible to model ourselves directly on Code for America. It’s not likely we are going to find cities willing to pay $440,000 for the privilege to host 3 librarians for a year. At least, not initially. Let’s call that our stretch goal.
We can start out small. Perhaps librarians could participate in one of the 137 Code for America Brigades that bring together civic-minded volunteers to work together via meetups. There are a variety of other organizations that also draw on civic minded volunteers to work together towards other goals including the Open Knowledge Foundation, hack4good, CrisisMappers, and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.
And I say this because I don't believe that librarians have to know how to program in order to participate in Librarianing for America. I believe our existing skillset lends itself to the cause. Our values and our talents are greatly under appreciated by many, many people including librarians themselves.
Or it could be that Librarianing for America could be a placement service that matched and embedded librarians with non-profits. The non-profits could gain from the technical and material experiences of the librarian and the librarian would be able learn more about the needs of the community and form partnerships that can only occur when we step outside of our buildings.
I don't think it's so far-fetched. Last year, my local hackerspace received three years of provincial funding to hire a staff coordinator to run a number of Open Data hackathons, host community roundtables and pay small stipends to community members who help in our efforts to making open data from the non-profit community more readily available to the community they serve.
Now it just might be the Frequency Illusion, but I prefer to think it is as if the stars are aligning for libraries and their communities.. At least they appear so when I look up towards our shared horizon.