I suggested in yesterday’s post in the Guardian that in order to fulfil the potential of open data for the voluntary sector, we need to reach a critical mass of activity, and that fostering new relationships between technology and charity experts is one way that we’ll get there. So what are we proposing to do about it?
The fact that 'Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics' is a phrase that has been in use for more than 100 years is perhaps an indication of the abuse to which data has been subjected in public discourse. We are by turns exasperated, decieved and baffled by the incessant quoting of percentages, putative correlations and trends by politicians, journalists and pundits, which we then sprinkle into our conversations (tweets, facebook updates) in more or less thoughtful, balanced ways. Usually less.
If we are to harness the potential of open data to allow us to ask better questions, and make better choices, we need to consider what kinds of conversation allow us to reach an informed consensus, rather than afford 'victory' to the most skillful orator with the weightiest arsenal of 'killer stats'.
Seeing pictures, it seems, is a deceptively tricky business. Leonardo Da Vinci suggested we might look at a stain on a wall and see "heads of men, diverse animals, battles, rocks, seas, clouds, woods and similar things". Our imagination can powerfully alter the mental image we create for ourselves: what we see is only partially determined by what we're looking at. Crucially, our imagination is directed by our intention: a professional Renaissaince wall-cleaner, for example, might have seen in Leonardo's stain only an embarrassing mistake (or a business opportunity).
Interest in open data has been growing for a few years now, long enough for its death to have been both predicted and declared. Charities in England and Wales are all already on the Open Data map, via the Charity Commission’s public register. The Commission is working to allow more flexible access to this information, while initiatives such as opencharities are exposing both the potential and current limitations of the register as a rich, malleable data source.