Strata Week: The Open Data Institute aims to mine the gold in open government data

The ODI's official launch, MIT's Kinect Kinetics project, and legal ways authorities are tracking us.

Here are a few stories from the data space that caught my attention this week.

Open government data gets a startup incubator

The Open Data Institute (ODI), founded by Tim Berners-Lee and artificial intelligence pioneer Nigel Shadbolt, officially launched this week in the U.K. As Berners-Lee and Shadbolt noted in “There’s gold to be mined from all our data (PDF),” the institute was initially funded and commissioned by the U.K. government to “help the public sector to use its own data more effectively” and that by “[w]orking with private companies and universities, it will also develop the capability of U.K. businesses to exploit open data, fostering a generation of open data entrepreneurs.” The institute’s mission is outlined on its website:

“The Open Data Institute will catalyse the evolution of an open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value. It will unlock supply, generate demand, create and disseminate knowledge to address local and global issues. We will convene world-class experts to collaborate, incubate, nurture and mentor new ideas, and promote innovation. We will enable anyone to learn and engage with open data, and empower our teams to help others through professional coaching and mentoring.”

Jamillah Knowles reports at The Next Web that the institute is already hosting its first startups, including agile big data specialists Mastodon C; corporate information aggregator OpenCorporates; location-based data startup Placr; and Locatable, a startup aiming to help people find their perfect place to live.

Coinciding with the launch, the institute received an investment boost. As Ingrid Lunden reports at TechCrunch, the U.K. government has committed £10 million over the next five years (about $16 million); this week, investment firm Omidyar Network, co-founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, invested an additional $750,000 in the ODI. Lunden notes that though the ODI is focused on the U.K., having an international investment company on board “gives the effort a potential profile beyond these borders.”

In related news, O’Reilly Radar’s Alex Howard talked with open government developer Eric Mill, who together with GovTrack.us founder Josh Tauberer and New York Times developer Derek Willis published data and scrapers for legislation in Congress from THOMAS.gov in the public domain at github.com/unitedstates. Mill told Howard he’s hoping this work will serve as an example for government to publish the information themselves in the future:

“It would be fantastic if the relevant bodies published this data themselves and made these datasets and scrapers unnecessary. It would increase the information’s accuracy and timeliness, and probably its breadth. It would certainly save us a lot of work! Until that time, I hope that our approach to this data, based on the joint experience of developers who have each worked with it for years, can model to government what developers who aim to serve the public are actually looking for online.”

You can read Howard’s full interview with Mills about building the scraper and the accompanying dataset, using GitHub as a platform, and how the data is being used here.

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Kinect sensor technology accurately tracks pedestrian and crowd behavior

Emily Badger at Co.Exist took a look this week at MIT’s Senseable City Lab’s new project Kinect Kinetics that uses 3D sensor technology in Kinect devices to track pedestrian behavior. The team explains on the Kinetics project website, “With this kind of sensing, we can better understand how pedestrians navigate space, and optimize the hallways, sidewalks, and plazas of our cities for their safety and comfort.” Badger notes in her post that “[w]ith 60% of the world’s population projected to cram into urban areas by 2030, this is no trivial invention.”

The value in using this technology, Badger reports, is that it can work even in high-density crowds, something current automatic video tracking technology cannot handle well. She describes an experiment the Senseable City Lab team conducted in MIT’s “Infinite Corridor,” in which they mounted three Kinect devices on the ceiling to track pedestrians walking below. Some of the resulting observations were obvious — people sorted into right and left lanes going in opposite directions (similar to street traffic) — but the team also strategically placed obstacles to observe how pedestrians would respond. As it turns out, Badger writes, “pedestrians move like atoms, magnetically repulsed away from obstacles and each other.”

As more research is performed in more complicated environments, such as airports or malls, Badger notes, the technology could be used to inform such decisions as where to place escalators or to determine the best positioning for signage. Senseable City Lab director Carlo Ratti told Badger that the technology could also be used in private homes to help design kitchen layouts, for instance, or to modify homes to accommodate aging residents.

Turns out our own data exhaust together with the fact that laws and legislation are slow to catch up with the rapid pace of technology development is allowing police and government authorities to snoop on us, report ProPublica’s Theodoric Meyer and Peter Maass in a post at ArsTechnica. The two took a look at the myriad ways police legally can track you without a warrant and the laws that allow them to do so.

For example, thanks to a 1979 Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Maryland, phone records can be acquired without a warrant, Meyer and Maass report. With only a subpoena — “which only requires that the data they’re after is relevant to an investigation” — police can have access to numbers you called, incoming calls, and times of calls.

Other legal tracking avenues include cell phone location tracking, IP address data, old emails and email drafts, old text messages, data stored in cloud storage providers such as Dropbox, and social media data. You can read Meyer and Maass’ full report here.

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