Welcome to the era of big, bad open information. Context needed.

With the amount of data we are generating, we should be thinking about information overload. What will it look like when we have 50 billion devices connected to the Internet and contributing to an already large the data set? Will we eventually be able to extract any useful information?

If big data is on course to transform business and society, then open data has a role to play to make sure information is accessible and shared. And as we make data open we also need to consider adding context.

Open data: evolution of hype

In addition to all of the technology advancements, our world is living another revolution where citizens are claiming more transparency — including over data. There is a growing interest in open data and content. The idea is not new: its definition according to opendefinition.org states that “a piece of data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike [license].”


If we apply this concept to governments or municipalities, we see two main benefits. On one hand, taking advantage of existing data sets can lead to new business models. Cities realize that open data is a potential gold mine to create new business and drive the local economy.

Some cities already share the data they generate in order to stimulate problem solving. New York City is creating community with its NY Big Apps project, an annual competition to develop new applications using the open data database. It also challenges organizations to add their own data as well. The aim is to improve the lives of citizens in the Big Apple, and to promote innovation and economic development. Similar projects exist in the city of Zaragoza, and with the European Open Cities App Challenge that awards funding and resources to individuals and companies for finding new ways to solve urban problems.

In another example, the District of Columbia police department decided to publish local crime statistics as open data; however, the data was unformatted and only useful when someone could translate it into a map that could feed a smartphone app. For example, developers created an app called Are you Safe? that alerts you when you are entering a dangerous zone.

The second benefit to cities opening up their data is that this influx of information can lead to more transparency. If the billions of sensors that populate our smart cities generate open data, we should be able to make decisions based on fact, and hold public officials accountable.

Imagine a mayor concerned with the traffic congestion downtown and the CO2 emissions of cars. She decides to put a congestion toll and a smart parking system in place to help reduce the gridlock and pollution. Now, imagine that baseline figures on pollution and traffic prior to implementing the congestion toll were accessible to the public, that they knew the cost of installing the toll and, more importantly, could access data on the return on investment for the city (such as revenues from increased traffic tickets, better management of paid parking spots, etc.). If they could also access the subsequent pollution levels, the facts would tell citizens if the congestion toll was a good or bad decision, and they could more objectively evaluate public policy … and their politicians.

Context matters

But open data is nothing without context. A friend of mine lives in one of the pioneer cities of open data in Spain. He likes running, and one day when he found it was harder to breathe he wondered if the pollution had increased. He checked the air quality parameters published by the municipality, but understood nothing. While the data were available to the public, there was no context for comparison. So he spent three days reading an environmental European Union Directive to discover that several parameters of the air pollution levels in his city were outside the limits.

So while it is true that we have access to more information than ever before, we are not experts on every subject. Thus, it is very difficult to digest it. My concern is that over-information the new way of hiding information.

The best way to combat disinformation is to demand context for all data, the “fact-checking journalism” promoted by sites like Gapminder or Open Knowledge.
Visualizing.org strives to make sense of issues through data and design with a collection site where designers and all sorts of organizations can upload and share open data sets.

If we demand context and facts instead of dumb numbers, the biggest legacy of the internet of things will be a world that is more transparent and democratic.

Alicia Asin is the co-founder and CEO of Libelium, a hardware provider for wireless sensor networks used in Smart Cities and Internet of Things projects. She can be found on Twitter at @aliciaasin