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On the Importance of Bridging the 'Data Divide'

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, June 29 2011

Writing in Wired, Jesse Lichtenstein observes the proliferation of open data initiatives around the world is not all rainbows and unicorns:

Take the case of the Bhoomi Project, an ambitious effort by the southern Indian state of Karnataka to digitize some 20 million land titles, making them more accessible. It was supposed to be a shining example of e-governance: open data that would benefit everyone and bring new efficiencies to the world’s largest democracy. Instead, the portal proved a boon to corporations and the wealthy, who hired lawyers and predatory land agents to challenge titles, hunt for errors in documentation, exploit gaps in records, identify targets for bribery, and snap up property. An initiative that was intended to level the playing field for small landholders ended up penalizing them; bribery costs and processing time actually increased.

This is a point that the teen culture and social network researcher danah boyd made eloquently in 2010. As data become more and more available, boyd's argument goes, it will become increasingly important to understand data critically. Her prediction was that the next battlefield will be data spin — over the meaning of each dataset that pertains to the public interest.

Lichtenstein points out that increasing the amount of available data without a commensurate increase in the data literacy of average people won't do much to empower the average person. There's thought and research building up that leads in that direction, too; a Knight Commission report from late last year, for example, suggested that skills including graphic design and video production for the web — data visualization, anyone? — will be critical to citizenship in the 21st century.

(With Andrew Seo)