The Secret Life of Data

I thought I would share the presentation I gave yesterday at the Museum of Science and Technology at the Canadian Association of Science Writers conference. Emily Chung a CBC science writer put together a great session. I am starting to position the ideas of openness beyond their operationalizations and within the realm of culture and the political economy. It is a start.

Below the slide show I include the text I used, image sources and references.

Slide 1:Orientation – Openness

Open Access (OA): Is primarily about the sharing of scientific and other scholarly publications. The data that inform the content of the articles are sometimes shared. Some funding agencies mandate that their research recipients publish their works in OA journals and make their data accessible. The objective for funders is a broader dissemination of results and an increase in the uptake of the outcomes of their research. International Polar Year researchers had to share their data and The Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) mandates OA.

Data Access: is primarily about the sharing of scientific and geomatics data. It is about building the necessary infrastructures, both soft and hard, to facilitate the storage, management, discovery and rendering of data. Often infrastructures are created within open architectures, based on open specifications and standards with a focus on interoperability. The Geoconnections program has built the Canada’s Geospatial Data Infrastructure this way. The CGDI also includes a Discovery Portal using ISO metadata standards. The program has also included the development of interoperable Unrestricted Data User Licenses.

Both OA and Data Access initiatives share the output of science but do so in different ways. The communities of practice involved also differ but the institutions involved are very similar (Universities, libraries, archives, mapping agencies, etc.)

Open Government: is about making government information and data more available to Citizens. It is normally driven by issues of government transparency, disclosure and the uptake and use of social media in Government. The Interim Information Commissioner of Canada (2) is a supporter of open government. We may see as an outcome more centralized access to public sector administrative data and science data. The most prominent examples of are in the US and the UK Guardian Free our Data campaign.

Open Data: is a nascent movement primarily led by young application developers and young public servants in IT departments and their youngish CIOs. The discussions are within those found in open government and it is citizen focused. The cities that have embraced open data with a degree of media success in Canada are Nanaimo, Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa. The advocates organize to get data to develop apps mostly for iPhones & other mobile devices but they are not scientists, researchers or work in NGOs and therefore they are not always the community of big data users and producers.

Open Government and Open Data initiatives overlap. OA is a lesser topic of discussion in these groups while we are seeing more involvement of the data access communities of practice.

Slide 2 – Imagining Ourselves

Culturally why are access to public data important?

This Earthrise image, that data set, changed how we see ourselves, how we imagine ourselves. The late Joseph Campbell in “the Power of the Myth” in conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988 said it best as he reflected about the Blue Marble image. “You do not see divisions or nations. This might be the symbol of new mythology to come. That is the country we are going to celebrate and those are the people we are one with”.

“This photo of Earthrise over the lunar horizon was taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968, showing Earth for the first time as it appears from deep space”.

Slide 3 – 1st Data Access Campaign?

The Earthrise and the Blue Marble data/images however, did not come to use in a straight forward way. The dissemination of these images was part of a data access campaign led by Stewart Brand in 1966. He made the button, sold it for 25 cents on the streets outside the Berkley Campus wearing a big white suit, boots and using a yellow sandwich board. He got kicked off campus. He sent the button to high ranking officials in the US, UN and the Soviet Union, to our guy Marshal McLuhan and to Buckminster Fuller. In the 1970 we have earth flags, ‘we are all in this together’ becomes the norm, and the phrase ‘think globally act locally becomes’ a mantra. As Brand said “those riveting Earth photos reframed everything”.

Smithsonian Photography Initiative

Slide 4 – New Data

Back to the part of the world where astronomy began, today we have Aljazeera broadcasting images of new planets outside the earth’s solar system.

Screen capture of article of First Images taken of ‘new’ planets. Viewed November 17, 2008.

Slide 6

Data are more than facts, or the unique arrangement of facts in databases.

Data are also culture & heritage artifacts, they are part of are our collective record & they fuel our imagination.

Slide 7 – The Continent of Science

Antarctica – The Continent of Science. The Antarctic Treaty System‘s primary purpose is to ensure, for all of us, that the continent will be used for peaceful purposes. Scientific research is promoted and the exchange of scientific data are mandated in a context where multiple territorial claims are abeyed. The system allows for the effective management of Antarctic geopolitics and environmental stewardship. There is transdisciplinary collaboration between and among Antarctic scientists who are integrating their scientific data into a comprehensive infrastructure. The data and the infrastructure are pillars of the Treaty System.

Map Image
GCMD Screen Capture

Antarctic Digital Database License Terms

Antarctic Treaty Secretariat
The Joint Committee on Antarctic Data Management (
Antarctic Spatial Data Infrastructure

Via: Pulsifer, Peter L., Taylor, D. R. F. 2007, Spatial Data Infrastructure: Implications for Sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic, appears in the Canadian Polar Commission newsletter, Meridian, spring-summer, April 25, pp. 1-5.

Slide 8 – Spatial Data Infrastructures & Sovereignty?

What do Colonial powers first do? They stake claims and they count people. In other words they map and conduct censuses. That is the politics of data gathering activities are. Today, the ice is melting in the north, there are territorial disputes and NRCan is undertaking one of the largest mapping undertakings in decades.

Our current government is taking a ‘hard power’ approach in terms of territorial claims in the north. But what of an Arctic Treaty approach? Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway are collaborating on a Joint Arctic Infrastructure (GIT Barents Project).

Canada could participate in the building of an Arctic Geospatial Data Infrastructure which “could contribute to successful stewardship by helping to establish constructive solutions for sovereignty issues and for sound management of resources and the environment” (Pulsifer et al). This would include working with the people currently living in the north – people who benefit from OA and data access initiatives.

This infrastructure could contain the evidence required for informed and collaborative multinational informed decision making.

Slide 9

Scientific data and how we build the infrastructures that create and manage them politically resonate

Slide 10 – Radarsat 2

$427 Million in Canadian public dollars were invested in a private company to the build Radarsat 2. MDA Dettwiller shareholders in BC then decided to sell this Canadian Public asset to a US arms manufacturer. The deal included access to data on Canada’s north for the Canadian government. The sticky wicket in the deal was the Patriot Act. At any time the US could turn off the information pipeline to the worlds most powerful sensor. The sensor that can capture images of the earth through cloud cover, and can monitor ice. The deal was quashed. It was not an outcry from Remote Sensing specialists or scientists, the story got framed as a sovereignty issue. Suddenly the data mattered and citizens cared about the sale of their publicly funded technology.

The Canadian Government has rights to data from Radarsat 2, but it cannot freely disseminate these to Canadians as the procurement deal was for their exclusive use only. We the citizens who paid for that technology, have to pay for those data and acquire these from MDA Detwiller.

We need to negotiate better data & technology deals with our tax dollars.


Walrus Article

Slide 11 – Data Good and Evil?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is a not for profit organizations that collaborates with humanitarian organizations such as Human Rights Watch to purchase satellite imagery from satellite image vendors. They then pool their analytical resources toward understanding human rights issues in some of the world’s hotspots using those images. They provide excellent reports.

And on the topic of satellite image control, shutter control and media blackouts. The US purchased, 3 month period, exclusive access of Space Imaging satellite images over Afghanistan and any images derived from IKONOS 2 that passed over the region. It effectively kept the news media out in the dark and left the public “without and independent channels for assessing the conduct of war”. Relief agencies were also unable to be informed on what to expect on the ground.

Screen Capture: “Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) in northeastern Sri Lanka. Human rights groups expressed concern over the status and safety of civilians due to the heavy fighting occurring 9-10 May, 2009. Comparing the May 6 and May 10, 2009 images of the CSZ, AAAS found significant removal of IDP shelters. In addition, imagery showed evidence of bomb shell craters, destroyed permanent structures, mortar positions, and 1,346 individual graves.”

Article: Space Today Online, The Satellite Wars

Slide 12

The sensors that capture data are feats of engineering and science. And like all technologies, we shape them and they in turn shape us. Satellites are loaded with geo-techno-social-politics.

Slide 13 – The beginning of the end (#64 not #42)

  • Data are more than facts uniquely arranged in a database
  • They tell stories and they provide evidence
  • Citizens need access to data so that we may be a part of that story telling, that collective imagination making, the narration of nation
  • Data inform democratic deliberations
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