Public Spaces – Private Infrastructure

In between two big deliverables and a trip tomorrow with the gang of Montreal Ouvert to le  Salon du Logiciel Libre du Québec I thought I would go back a little to my other love beyond open data  – thinking about infrastructures.  The best place to tap into the pulse on the international scene of blogging, libraries, cyberdissidents, the Internet and human rights, free speech and infrastructure, is Ethan Zucherman‘s blog My Heart is in Accra.  This is where I read the best line I have I have come across in quite sometime:

Hosting your political movement on YouTube is a little like trying to hold a rally in a shopping mall. It looks like a public space, but it’s not – it’s a private space, and your use of it is governed by an agreement that works harder to protect YouTube’s fiscal viability than to protect your rights of free speech. Even if YouTube’s rulers take their function as a free speech platform seriously and work to ensure you’ve got rights to post content, they’re a benevolent despot, not a representative government. (Here I’m borrowing a formulation from Rebecca MacKinnon, who’s working on a book on this topic.) (Via blog post: Public Spaces, Private Infrastructure – Open Video Conference)

It reminded me once again why we need to think critically not just about the content on the Internet – Open Data –  in the case of this blog, but also reflecting on the infrastructure that deliver those data.  Open data is a practice and a philosophy, for some an ideology.  I, like many others get wrapped up in the practice and forget to look up, pause and think about the political economy, principles, and grounding practice in theory.

For example, during open access week where I was giving a talk on Open Data and Research, at Ottawa U I was surprised to hear that some were dissing the City on how it delivers content while proclaiming that Google is open data.  Well, Google ain’t open data!  They let you play with their content, and use it as a platform to showcase yours, but make no mistake, Google can decide to close the shop tomorrow and go fishing. Ergo your content goes with them.  For instance, the hydrographic community lobbied Google to remove the ice layer in Canada’s north and instead to show water features and coast lines.  Good for them, except that people live on the ice more than 60% of the year and it meant that their content – home, sled & skiddo routes – were now in the middle of the ocean.  Google listened to the formal scientific community while the Inuit were left stranded in the water so to speak.  Climate change does not help with that either.

Open data is also not just about apps – which makes me sound scrooge like on International Hackathon day btw – it is about the data that go into these, how these are delivered, not just formats & standards, but licenses, fibre optic cables, telephone towers, radio wave signals, phone and data plans etc.  It is also about the policies around access and who is at the table doing the asking, their demographics and why they are asking.  Most of the apps we will see coming out of today,  will be delivered on iPhones, some for iPads.  Few will have regular websites, most will be around the faster and better delivery of services and few will be about critically reflecting on who gets and does not get access to those same services.

For instance, the bus apps are great for the business commuter, not so great for seniors, refugees, those who survive on fixed incomes such as disability pensions or social assistance etc.  That group cannot afford an IPhone, can barely afford the cost of a bus pass and do not really care about predicting the exact second the bus will come, but, do care about bus fees, off peak hour transit times and whether or not their social housing project or suburban home is on a bus route that will take them to the grocery store in the dead of winter, school, work or library.  Also, they just hope their #2, or #14 will actually show up.  There will be no apps to show us where the buses do not go, where they should go, nor apps that will inform transit committees on how to better serve non commuters.

I have really liked the transparency apps, spending visualizations and those focusing on electoral accountability


I look forward to accessing demographic data, health data, environmental data, spending data, administrative data, research data, and seeing those rendered in ways where we have to rethink policy and redirect efforts (Atlas of the Risk of Homelessness or ecological footprint calculators and ideas like Random Hacks for Kindness).  I was also really happy to see Apps4ClimateAction and workshops like Mapping Environmental Issues in the City.  You need subject matter expertise, grounded theory, scientific models, great data and more time to develop, which makes them harder to produce, but well worth the challenge if they improve our lot just a bit more.  I think I will also need to lay low for a while and think more about theory and infrastructures surrounding open data and less about the shiny tinsel and more about the intersection of society and technology.