We’re in the midst of a data explosion. Then again, we’re always in the midst of a daa explosion. It’s been developing, wave by wave, since the first Sumerian scribe pushed his wedge into clay. Maybe it feels different this time; maybe it’s always felt different.
The past two centuries saw the gradual triumph of ordered data collection: the regimented and expensive process of the census, the time-motion study, the economic indicator. The province of powerful behemoths — government, military, corporate or the omnipresent RAND corporation — such projects were rigorously plannedat the top, then executed by a small army of functionaries.
In the last 15 years, something has changed. Quantitative change, initially: more data, faster computers, easier transmission of information. But also a change in quality. Now we’ve moved into the era of data as by-product. Our clicks and our purchases are tracked because watching us is cheap and easy, not as part of a pre-planned technocratic project. Such cheapness brings us into the age of data abundance, and we’re only beginning to appreciate the consequences and the possibilities.
Enter the Open Data movement. Bubbling with geekish idealism, this is a loose grouping of campaigners trying to prize large datasets out of government and corporate hands, bringing them into the agora. Knowledge here may be measured in SQL dumps, linked data and gigabytes of official transcripts, but the idealism fits into the standard pattern: the Truth will set you free.