Thursday, February 23, 2012

Back To The Future With Data

by Keith McDonald
I've been having a debate with a friend about time travel.

It started with a discussion around where you'd go if you could go back in time and escalated into making a top 5 list of the moments in history we'd want to visit. One of the first places my buddy said he'd want to go is November 5, 1955. Anyone know what is significant about that day?

I didn't get it at first but that was the day Doc Brown invented the Flux Capacitor in the Back To The Future movie series. For those of you who don't know or remember, the Flux Capacitor is the thing that made time travel possible.

Well, I didn't blow one of my choices on a fictional movie time period but it did occur to me that Open Data actually gives us a chance to do time travel right now - kind of like having the data version of a Flux Capacitor.

fortune cookie saying ''Open Data doesn't lie''


DATA Don't Lie!
Of course, you may not be able to visit an event or time period in a "for-real-human-touch-and-feel-it" sense (am I getting to Stephen King here?) but you can certainly reveal a great deal about what was going on. And this history would be truer than what we get from history books or Wikipedia. That's because data doesn't lie or exaggerate.

Note to the cynical: I suppose you could argue that you can exaggerate (or leave out) what data shows or reveals. But, if you offer up the raw data you use, others will use the same data to validate your results. That is one of the magic things of raw, Open Data - your source becomes a resource to everyone. Talk about checks and balances!

Unfortunately, we don't have raw data going back for centuries. Put in this light though, I hope you can see the value in having cities releasing data now and on a go forward basis.

The History According to Data
Imagine students in the future using the data we are releasing today to put together a realistic view of what is (I mean "was") happening now. And, speaking of movies, future world producers will be able to paint vivid pictures of life back in 2012 as they research trends or developments way more scientifically than ever before.

Maybe that's not a huge deal right now. Especially if you are new to apps and the whole data scene. But Open Data is growing faster than a viral YouTube video of some dog singing along to a Justin Bieber song (or substitute whatever is the latest viral thing at the moment).

It has a kinship to the power we are seeing in the Social Media movement. In fact, if real time travel ever does come along, accessing Facebook and twitter archives as well as the data of the moment you choose to visit, would really prepare you for your trip.

Me, I'd head back to Sunday, February 9, 1964 - Ed Sullivan Theatre. Kind of a precursor to the potential of Open Data happened that night when researchers learned that crime dipped remarkably low while The Beatles were performing on Ed Sullivan - as did water use when they were done. That lead to the movement by governments of the time to have more rock and roll on television in the evenings with commercial breaks staggered by the networks. It's true (not) - just check the data!

DATA eh? #18

1 comment:

Liam C said...

I think this sort of thing will be invaluable in the future for research. As we gather more and more real-time data, the value increases exponentially.
Being able to correlate between an event and one variable is nice, but imagine being able to do this with hundreds of variables with changes being captured at a day by day, or even minute by minute rate.

I can only imagine the visualizations that will be possible as well. Layering different types of information... A new bus route is created, you watch over time as the useage increases, and settles, you overlay public tweets and other social discussion related to the change and map reactions, then an accident or crime happens and you see how that effects opinion and actual usage over the course of hours, days, weeks, and further. All unsolicited. Just data sitting out there for some enterprising, curious person to put together. I'd like to see all of the fluctuations in real estate prices over time at a street by street level. So many things would tie into them... construction costs, macro and micro economic climate, local amenities, crime rates, zoning and bylaw changes, etc. etc. So useful and just plain fun.