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Free Data Zones and other global open web trends: Transatlantic Science Forum

The openness of data collected by government agencies is intermittent on both sides of the Atlantic.

Downtown Brooklyn from NYU CUSP. Photo by Brady Dale.

Data is just meaningless bits and bytes sitting on servers until someone turns it into something that a human can understand. Or, “Life is only as good as the people live it,” as it was put by Thanassius Rikakis, Vice Provost for Design, Arts and Technology at Carnegie Mellon University. Meaning that as data science progresses, it needs to keep coming back to real world applications that somehow improve how we all live.

We wrote about Rikakis’s new project at Steiner Studios here.

The days when scientists, designers, developers and hackers have all possible streams of data to manipulate, experiment with and interpret are a ways off though. Open government and open data advocates are still in the phase where they are pushing heavily for more data troves to be opened and digitized. These are the sorts of matters that were under discussion Friday, at the New York Transatlantic Science Forum, hosted by NYU’s Center for Urban Science Progress [CUSP].

The conversation was organized to discuss how the current free trade agreement under negotiation between the U.S. and EU would impact urban science and research. The event was organized by the Transatlantic Science Forum and moderated by one of its cochairs, Declan Kirrane of the ISC Intelligence in Science, from Brussels. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership [TTIP], which instigated the formation of TSF, only mentions science once in its present draft.

Some takeaways:

  • There’s a lot of talk of Free Trade Zones. Kirrane asked what a “Free Data Zone” might look like, where data is shared open and interoperably between countries that have agreed to cooperate.
  • Peter Elias, at the University of Warwick, opened a conversation about the value of urban data by saying, “Cities exist primarily because we bring together and concentrate economic activity in small areas that enables us to specialize in ways we just couldn’t in any other environment.”
  • Elias described the value of simulating cities by saying they could enable officials to predict stress points, understand networks, improve services and regulate growth and decline.
  • For those skeptical that we could ever model cities in a meaningful ways, Elias drew a parallel to the incredibly complex meteorological system. We used to make weak predictions. As our number of observations grew and our models got more sophisticated, though, it has become much better.
  • Jim McCabe of the American National Standards Institute discussed an international effort among smart cities technologists to develop standards in city measurement, such that you’d have an extensive set of metrics (such as green space per 10,000 people or people per square kilometer) that could be used compare one city to another, better helping people and businesses decide where to locate.
  • Joel Gurin of the Open Data GovLab discussed the economic stimulus potential of governments releasing data, citing a McKinsey report that estimated the annual value of open data initiatives to be about $3 billion annually.
  • Geoff Mulligan, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, pointed out that Americans are skeptical of sharing data, because they are convinced it will only be used to “sell them more baby diapers.”
  • Mulligan also drew the audiences attention to the concept of Cyber Physical Systems, which he explained is the next phase of The Internet of Things. It’s the subset of that technology that is bent toward providing controls in the real world, whether that’s of light, water flow, signals or transit.

Toward the end of the conversation, the CUSP director called out large governments and bureaucracy for erring on the side of hoarding data. In a related note, Gurin observed that the cities and states that have been the most open about data have done so primarily because some leader came along who believed in it. Mulligan pointed out that what forced the issue at the Federal level is the President ordering it.

Even under a directive, though, there’s more and less helpful ways of opening data. Or, as Koonin said of executive orders toward transparency, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Henry IV, “Any man may summon spirits from the sea, but will they come?”

Kirrane closed the conversation by describing Horizon 2020, the the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding. Assuring the attending visitors that it was open to US participation, he described a program foucsed on investigator driven science, industrial leadership by enabling risk financing and innovation in small and medium businesses and combating societal challenges (which included “inclusive, innovative and reflective societies”). The program is driven toward openness, so he said one of its objectives is not yielding patents.

The proceedings of the half day gathering will yield a consensus document that will be included with similar documents from similar events in the two regions, which will be submitted in March to TTIP negotiators. The main goal of the Transatlantic Science Forum is to input a chapter on research and innovation to the treaty’s negotiation process, according to a press release distributed at the event.

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Companies: Center for Urban Science and Progress / New York University / Carnegie Mellon University
Series: Brooklyn

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