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By Danika Delph • March 15, 2018

Human Data: The Impact of Open Data for Connected Infrastructure

Last week contextere hosted a panel discussion in partnership with Urban-X for New York City’s Open Data Week 2018, a week-long celebration created to raise awareness of the many utilities of the City’s public data. The panel focused on the impact of open data on the citizens of New York City. It was held at A/D/O, a fantastic open workspace that set the tone for an evening full of insightful and innovative discussion. 

Access NYC's Open Data

Joining us were three great panelists: Timothy Martin, Star Childs, and Zachary Aders. Timothy is the Chief Analytics Officer with the NYC Department of Buildings and leads a team of analytics and data science professionals providing agency-wide support for research and reporting initiatives, performance management, geographic information systems, and predictive modeling. Star is the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of Citiesense, a technology company creating a map-based Neighborhood Knowledge Platform™. The platform enables local community organizations and their members to create a valuable knowledge-base for data about their neighborhood by centralizing the tools used to manage community assets, such as local businesses, real estate, streets, and parks. Last, but not least, Zachary is a Project Director with the New York City Economic Development Corporation and manages the design and construction of public buildings and infrastructure projects, totaling over $800M in budget. 

The evening kicked-off with an introduction from Micah Kotch, Managing Director at Urban-X, and Adrienne Schmoeker, Director of Civic Engagement & Strategy, with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. Moderating the event was Gabe Batstone, Chief Executive Officer at contextere, who invited the panelists and audience to reflect on three topics: the instrumentation and impact of open data, the challenges of open data, and the value of open data to citizens. During the discussion, he also reminded us that 

“a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” - Herbert A. Simon. 

Out of these conversations came many thought provoking topics and questions, three of which are outlined below.  

Avoiding Bias 

As many of you are aware, the usefulness of data is highly correlated to its ‘cleanliness’. However, when we clean data or take it out of its original context, we inevitably insert our own biases into it. As such, to ensure reliability and correct representation of the data, it is imperative that this process not be taken lightly. The panelists agreed that engaging in conversations with the public and having rigorous verification and validation steps are vital to ensuring the public has trust in the data, thereby increasing the probability of its use. 

Security  

While everyone agreed on the importance of making public data public, in practice, it’s more complicated than simply releasing all the data. Instead, exposing public data requires careful consideration on what and how much will be made available. Releasing too much data could prove to be dangerous for public security. For example, it would be unwise to include information on NYC’s underground infrastructure in the open data forum since it could be used by the wrong parties to harm the public. 

Citizen Rights  

With the release of city-wide data to the public, it becomes possible to uncover many socio-economic trends, some that may be unfavorable to certain neighborhoods. During the Q&A portion of the evening, one of the audience members touched on this and asked whether we should release data that indicates health hazards in buildings. As you would expect, the answer among the panelists was a resounding “yes”. This question, however, opens a larger debate regarding how these insights can and should be used. For example, how can we ensure they’re used to address and resolve the socio-economic issues, rather than exacerbate them? As with many public-sector questions, there seems to be no right answer. Instead, the ‘right’ approach will largely depend on one’s philosophical outlook. 

Finally, as open data and its use cases are considered an emerging technology, the discussion ultimately led to more questions than it answered. Being at the forefront of innovation and change, this is to be expected and there’s no doubt that the coming months and years will bring more questions that we’ll struggle to answer. The key is to continue engaging in open dialogue and collaborating with a diverse group of stakeholders to ensure everyone’s point of view is taken into consideration. Although this may be time consuming, it will be vital in developing regulations that are representative of society and do not consciously or unconsciously disfavor already marginalized groups.