Using open data to analyse patterns

On: September 11, 2013
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About Joram Binsbergen
Master student New Media and Digital Culture | Graduated in Communication and Multimedia Design | BA Media & Culture Interested in: Startups | Technology | Digital Methods Initiative | Bitcoin


In the last few years data has become more and more important. Government agencies and commercial companies create and collect a lot of data. On the internet users are increasingly generating data through clicks, likes and other metrics such as transactional data. Those digital traces are seen as valuable, especially for marketing purposes. The often heard phrase ‘data is the new oil’ demonstrates the growing interest in such data. Just like oil, data must be broken down, analysed for it to have value. However, the analysis and processing of large datasets was merely available for big institutions and companies that collect the data themselves. This because of the economic value of the data and the required technical infrastructure to analyse the data. This raises important questions about power, control and access to data. Users in particular are accountable for most of the data, so despite the amount of data they generate by using the web, users have no means to get access to their data.

Recent developments in digital research methods and many interesting projects made datasets more accessible for independent researchers, artists and citizens. Slowly but surely governments and companies are seeing the importance and possibilities of open data. Projects such as the ‘CitySDK’ of the Waag Society which developed a platform that combines largely available open data from eight different cities around Europe. It’s API allows the linking of different datasets and city services such as live public transport data with the current traffic flow on the main roads in Amsterdam. An example of this data use can be found here: Open Data CitySDK

City SDK Waag

Screenshot of ‘open data city SDK’ by the Waag Society

Through the use of API’s (application programming interface) developers and researchers have easy access to information. API’s provide a structure whereby information can be easily used, combined and searched. API’s allow for the development of new tools and applications that uses data in new interesting ways. The Waag Society developed an interactive map of all building in the Netherlands. Using data from the register (Also know as ‘het Kadaster’ in Dutch) of almost ten million buildings in the Netherlands. The data is derived from the Dutch municipalities who deliver the basic information. Developer Bert Spaan from the Waag Society visualised the data according to the year of construction of the buildings. Ranging from deep red to bright blue. (Where red stands for buildings built before 1800, and bright blue for the newest buildings.) This visualisation makes new interesting patterns visible wherein we can see how cities in the Netherlands have grown over time.

Building map Amsterdam

Screenshot of buildings of Amsterdam by Bert Spaan, the Waag Society

The example above shows how useful open data can be in finding new perspectives and patterns in data. However open data usually has some sort of limitations imposed by the technical rules of the API. API’s allow for the access to information, but we have to think about them as technical means of the data provider. Data comes in many forms, API’s only allow specific access to data. In the end the access through API’s benefits solely its provider. Therefore it is important to be aware of the contexts in which the API is made available, for what purposes and if there are limitations on the use of the data. So when we think about open data we need to question to what extent the data is truly open.

Interesting reads and sources

Boonstra, Ron. “Nederland vanuit een nieuw perspectief.” The Waag Society (2013)

Boyd, Danah, and Kate Crawford. “Six Provocations for Big Data.” (2011): 1–17. Print.

Rotella, Perry. “Is Data the New Oil?.” Forbes (2012): 1–2.

Waag Society. “about the CitySDK Platform / API.” (2013)

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