My Gov 3.0 course with Beth Noveck at NYU is rocking my world. First of all, I’m blogging. And tweeting. I don’t yet own a smartphone, but I might soon. Anti-tech girl is dipping her toes into the other realm and is intrigued by what she sees. I still have some hang-ups and concerns, but I’m seeing how much public good technology has to offer. I’m intrigued by big data, smart disclosure and open government, and what their manifestations could mean for us in the near and distant future. Granted, some of this is way over my head, but I understand enough to start forming opinions, so I guess that’s a good sign.
So, let’s start with Big Data. Big data is, well, big. There is so much information out there- for example, our computers and cellphones are constantly gathering information about what we’re clicking on, what we’re viewing, what we’re purchasing and when. Some of this information is being aggregated by companies like Netflix and Google and Facebook, but there’s a lot more data out there that’s not being collected… or it’s being collected but it’s not useable- yet. I appreciated in-class demos from the likes of Michael Holland, Chief of Staff for the Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), and Juliana Freire from NYU-Poly. They used effective visual presentations to demonstrate how we can use easily available information for mapping, visualizing our cities in unique ways, and making informed choices about our behavior, energy use, spending habits, etc.
For example, NYU Poly has embarked on a project with the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission to track every single ride of every single customer over a one year period. They’ve discovered some really interesting trends; most drop-offs occur on the avenues, while most pick-ups occur on the streets; also, ridership peaks at midnight, with Saturday nights the busiest night of all. We also find that there are very few pick-ups in Harlem. Harlem residents would like to be able to hail a yellow cab in their neighborhood. This is information drivers can use to potentially alter their typical pick-up locations, which could help address an unmet demand in the Harlem community.
Michael Holland offers a great visual example of how to use big data. He showed us a picture of a thermal photograph of lower Manhattan on a hot summer day. You could see that some buildings were evenly cool, while others had hot spots, which could mean the A/C wasn’t on in certain floors, heat is leaking in, or cool air is escaping. One series of buildings happened to be the Alphabet City projects in the Lower East Side. They showed up red-hot in the thermal photograph. Either residents didn’t have access to air-conditioners, they weren’t on, or the buildings themselves was so poorly insulated that the cool air was leaking out. In a situation like this, CUSP envisions sharing the data with the housing authority, building managers, and occupants alike, so that they all can make informed choices about how to use energy, reduce consumption, and ultimately create positive social externalities.
The way I see it, Smart Disclosure is kind of the next step in the process. Once the data has been collected and aggregated, we want to make sure that everyday lay people such as myself can interpret that data and do something with it. I like O’Reilly tech reporter Alex Howard’s definition of smart disclosure:
“Smart disclosure is when a private company or government agency provides a person with periodic access to his or her own data in open formats that enable them to easily put the data to use.”
So for example, Sprint tracks my cellphone usage and delivers this information to me in a convenient, easy-to-read format, which allows me to determine whether or not I’ve selected the plan that best meets my needs and preferences. Or another example I really like: some power companies provide consumers with information about how their energy usage compares to their neighbors’ energy usage. Of course they don’t use names, but rather offer usage comparisons for similar-sized homes. Studies have shown that by providing this information consumers reduce their energy consumption. All this opening up and transparency calls to question important issues around privacy and security. If disclosure is smart, not everything will be disclosed. Data sharing must be done carefully, scrubbed clean of any information that could hurt people if it goes public. Think confidential medical records; CIA documents; credit card information; social security numbers. There are some serious hazards to opening data up, but the goal of big data isn’t to create some omniscient Big Brother data machine, it’s to create a system that empowers the everyday consumer and global citizen to make informed choices about their own lives. Open government and big data advocates recognize privacy and security as a hurdle in the movement, but they are sharing best practices for navigate around it. Still, it’s a serious issue that’s not likely to be solved overnight.
Here's another interesting application of big data: School of One in Manhattan. They have collected extensive data about each of their pupils, and then created an algorithm which in turn creates an individualized daily study plan for each student based on their personal history as well as yesterday’s assessment data. In the end, quite a bit of learning takes place individually on computers, which is a little concerning to me. We are already so “plugged in.” School is a place where students learn to socialize, communicate, listen, process and reflect, and develop a sense of self. If we plug in, aren’t we going to check out, or at best miss out on some formative social and educational interaction? Thankfully, School of One combines individualized computer learning with classroom lessons and small group activities.
While I think its fanstastic that we are finding innovative ways to meet the unique needs of children in the classroom, I can't help but feel concern that computers are taking over the role of the teacher. Young people need to know how to learn from someone who's imperfect. It teaches us to adapt, to ask questions, to think critically about how we might present material differently, and to ask for help if we need it. But perhaps most importantly, it teaches us how to listen. How successful will students be if they don't know how to look someone in the eye and really listen to them with undistracted attention. Nobody will mistake me for Ms. Manners but there is a lot to be said for demonstrating respect and polite courtesy.Blogs probably aren't supposed to have conclusions; it's a bit too formal, perhaps, but I feel compelled to find some way to wrap this up. I'm really excited about big data, smart disclosure and open government. There is significant public good that can come from the appropriate application of these movements to society. But there's the rub: who's calling the shots? Who's deciding what is ready to be 'opened up'? Who's scrubbing the data, and how can they be certain that it's safe? In terms of smart disclosure, how can we be certain that corporations don't alter data in some way to promote their own interests? There are still many questions left unanswered. That's why citizen participation in these movements is so essential. It's time to get involved, I think, and be a counter- not just among the counted.