Bridges between man and data – Open data promotes transparency and even creates business opportunities

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Tuomas Peltomäki, journalist for the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, wanted to write a story about politicians who interrupt their colleagues at the parliament by yelling from their seats.

He asked for the transcripts of all the speeches and ended up with megabytes and megabytes of data. Then he started coding robots that clean and analyze the mass of information. When their work was done, an article about the most frequent yellers of the parliament was published.

The city of Helsinki has been working with open data for five years. The city wants to open up as much data as possible.

“Behind every action there is information. It is collected with taxpayers’ money, so it belongs to them,” says Tanja Lahti, Project Manager from Helsinki’s Open Data Service.

In 2011 Helsinki published data on traffic accidents with location information. The media filled with stories.

“This is the best way to serve citizens. Now people know where the most dangerous crossroads are,” she continues.

Several foundations and organizations that promote free access to data all over the world. They encourage companies and countries to open up their data and build services on it.

 

Teemu Ropponen, the Executive Director of Open Knowledge Association of Finland, says that there are three outstanding benefits to opening data. Open data helps public services to evolve and the actions of authorities to become more transparent. Open data is a chance to boost business for companies.

Open data is beginning to benefit from dialogue. Instead of government just handing out data they can also collect it from users.

Ropponen gives an example. To examine the quality of water there can be 1,000 official measurements. Unofficial measurements can be added to complete the dataset, if people are given measuring kits to use in their summer cottages. This gives the data users even more accurate data on the situation of their swimming waters.

Open data can prove quite useful to journalists. It can be used to make sense of complicated topics such as the refugee crisis. Ropponen encourages journalists to use open data to bring their stories into life. He calls it a new form of slow journalism.

“Data really makes you think. The interactive visualizations stop the reader for a minute and they start to explore the data and play with it,” Ropponen says.

To succeed in using open data in journalism one has to have an interesting topic. The data validates the story, but in the end journalism is about asking questions and creating stories.

To get started:

    1. Learn to use the right tools:  You will need coding and analytical skills to use the data to benefit from the data. Start by exploring data and doing experiments.

 

    1. Put together a team: You need patience and teamwork to succeed. Little bit of coding, visualization and storytelling are a good combination. There is a lot of boring work to do like validation and cleaning so share the workload.

 

    1. Check for sources: Start by checking, if your country has a data catalogue. For example there is a European Open Data Portal. Your country or city might also have their own web interface for open data.

 

    1. Talk to experts: Be really careful with making conclusions. Some data can be obvious but many sets are really complicated. Quite often it might seem easy to combine data and understand it but it is not that straightforward. Get a second opinion from an expert to avoid making mistakes.

 

 

Text: Essi Lehto
Photo: Narendra Hutomo

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