We met with Mattias Axell at the Royal Library in Stockholm where we talked about ‘data’ and especially ‘Open Data’. He answers questions about the the meaning, usage and effect of data. ‘Why and how is data important for our future societies’ or, `is it really important?` Mattias answered and explored the questions below.
Mattias Axell is Community Manager at Open Knowledge Sweden and he is also working with the project FrågaStaten.
Who are you?
My name is Mattias Axell. I am a Kaospilot and aspiring Experience Designer. I have mainly studied in English since early teenage years and studied social science in high school. As far as I can remember I have always been very curious about how society works and how it can improve. I see myself as kind of a societal hacker. I want to understand this constantly changing system but realise it is extremely complex. So I engage to de-construct functions and processes in society to re-construct them in more purposeful, generative and sustainable ways which I hope will make a dent in the life of people in societies.
What does data mean?
One allegory that I have heard about data is that it is like a natural resource similar to oil. But I would argue that it in comparison to a fossile energy source it is a renewable resource that is infinite and everywhere in the world. It is something that we can harvest and use for endless purposes. Data and information is said to be the oil of the 21st century but I prefer to compare it to renewable energy. Why? Because as soon as quantity and matters or something change, its properties and thus data change too.
We are living in the information age and we as individuals receive so much impressions and input every day. There are so many different sources of matters and things that we can quantify and analyse, but for that we need to understand perception. The first time I got in touch with this, epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge and the “knowledge hierarchy” was through Dee Hock, the founder of VISA. He shared a definition of knowledge in his phenomenal book “The Chaordic Age” from 1999 (later re-released as “One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization” in 2005). Noise is the first step in the knowledge hierarchy. Noise is infinite, everywhere and it is is going on around us all the time. We make sense of it as different categories of data, emotions and sensory inputs. In a similar way we as humans have different ways in our societies to make sense of it all. This is done through our perception and tools we created that organizes data. The image of the “DIKW-pyramid (Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Pyramid)” excludes noise so I quote an excerpt from Dee Hock’s book which describes it quite well.
“Noise becomes data when it has a cognitive pattern.
Data becomes information when assembled into a coherent whole, which can be related to other information. Information becomes knowledge when integrated with other information in a form useful for making decisions and determining actions.
Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in anticipating, judging and acting.
Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principles, memory and projection.”
– Dee Hock, Founder and former CEO of VISA. Source: http://lindastone.net/2010/06/30/dee-hocks-1996-quote/
What is data consisted of? Is it only consisted of numbers, graphics and diagrams?
As mentioned I believe that all data comes from noise we receive through our senses. I do not think it has to be mathematical things but maths helps us make sense. Mathematics is a social technology that humans early on constructed to make sense of quantities and more complex matters. E.g. if we start counting the amount of different kind of objects around us, then of course I naturally have to work with basic mathematics. However data can also be something about our feelings, e.g. designers work with it when they quantify something qualitative such as an emotion, which in itself is very difficult. How can you transform and value a feeling and convert it to a quantity? If I would work with design and development of a product, then I would ask people how they feel about this look of the product. However I believe that qualitative research often can be more powerful than quantitative research. However the choice between qualitative and quantitative depends on purpose.
What is the difference between data and information?
As with the quote above, we can call data as the second step and the next step is information. You can gather and cross combine data with different kinds of data to get different information. In order to make sense of all the information it becomes knowledge when you have a fuller picture. That knowledge then leads you to understanding. You can then turn onto the ultimate step which is the wisdom when you have more philosophical values incorporated.
Can everyone understand the data easily?
Everyone can work with data. But when you start getting into working with big amounts of data that can require a computer or other technological device – then a lot of people get excluded because the learning curve is too high. And then the process becomes more complex. In this sense not everybody can work with e.g. open data. That is why a lot of people today work on transforming data to the level of information. They transform it in a way that is easier for the recipient to make sense of. A sheet of “raw data” with lots of different data may not be so understandable in the beginning but when a person has made sense of it and, it could take a transformed and comprehensive shape in the form a blog, presentation or interview.
How does the idea of open data come out?
Today I think it comes out as very technically advanced – but it is not really. A lot of people involved are technical and communicate in a language that becomes filled with technical words. There are different aspects of it. Open Knowledge e.g. works with the aspect connected to the idea of transparency and open government and a more open democracy. Data is a very common resources in the public sector to create a foundation for the transparency into how society is doing and the situation of how public sectors are running. This also a way to create trust and citizen interaction where people can be creative, give feedback and scrutinize.
Why should open data exist as an idea and concept?
Because in today’s very data-based society it is a kind of raw resource. E.g. if I need food, I need to have earth that I nourish to create conditions which are supports life and nutritious a harvest. I think the open data is an element in society that gives life to whatever I plant. So if I have an idea, I can use open data as facts to inspire and kind of nourishment to my idea, to make something more with it. It is also a source for creativity, so from open data I can actually get inspired, learn and harvest ideas. In that sense, open data also offers a space and playground for creativity which is why we today see a lot of so-called hackathons.
How does the system of open data work?
This depends on how we define the “system” because there is so many systems and processes involved in it. Technically you must have a system, digital or analogue, that helps you collect data and one to help you harvest and organise the data. This can sometimes be called like washing the data, such as when you rinse vegetables to clean it from dirt and pesticides. Basically washing out the stuff that is not useful, or not in your interest at the moment. Then you can have a the system to manage the different data sets from where you can connect to other systems where you make the data available and open. When we collaborate with inclusive processes and with open data across sectors and organizations – then we start societal learning.
Can you talk about your projects at Open Knowledge Sweden?
My projects are mainly connected to the current 250th anniversary of Freedom of Press and Freedom of Information (or the Principle of Public Access as it also is called) in Sweden. The main one is called “Fråga Staten” which aims to create a proof of concept of how the Principle of Public Access can be more generative in the digital society. By creating a new user experience for people to exercise their right and freedom to request public documents in Sweden we hope to show why Sweden should strengthen and adapt Freedom of Information to our digital society. Along with researchers and entrepreneurs in the field I believe it creates a lot of value economically, socially and ecologically. The project as a concept is a digital platform which makes it easier for citizens to request public documents and data – and get answers from the public sector.
I have been learning how to work with the raw data regarding the contact details of public bodies in Sweden. I found through an unsatisfactory experience that there are two different sources of contact data to all state agencies, regions and municipality. It was presented in quite an informative way, but in Sweden there is no single official source in the public sector that has all the raw data about these contact details. So I made a hack myself to create that. I collected all this information and with the help of the Open Knowledge network we combined it to a single spreadsheet of data. It will be available at PublicBodies.org and I hope that it is only a temporary solution until authorities start collaborate to make it open data themselves!
Along with this project I am also helping out a little bit in our Local Open Data Index project run by Asmen Gül which he will tell you more about if you get in touch with him.