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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Afterthoughts - Open Knowledge Roadshow 2013 - Jyväskylä

One of the greatest benefits of internet is that it allows aggregation. For aggregation to happen data needs to be in easy enough format to consume. Government data might be available but in a format that is hard to consume. The open data movement aims to change this situation. This way it can be considered a sibling to open source. This time the focus is on data, though. The benefits of collaboration are the same, though.

We are still in the beginning of the process here in Finland. Some promising moves have been made. A while ago map data came available. It is still missing some routing related data but there's plenty open already. Most data related to public transportation is available as well and the situation will get a lot better within a year if everything goes right. These are just a few examples.

Making government data available makes it considerably easier to build services, and business even, on top of it. Government's own services aren't known for their usability or innovation. Opening data allows the government to leverage the talent of external developers.

Open Knowledge Roadshow 2013

In order to make the situation better, the Finnish branch of Open Knowledge Foundation decided to organize a roadshow. The purpose of it was to make more people, esp. from the government side, aware of the benefits and foster community creation. There are a lot of talented people in Finland. They just need common goals to make anything happen.

I helped to organize the local event and participated in it. It was split over two days around 8th and 9th of November. The first day was more about networking and discussing the concepts whereas the latter focused more on getting things done.

The Potential of Open Data

In order to demonstrate the potential of open data I helped to convert data available in Kalkati format to GTFS. This allowed us to showcase a navigator application developed for public transportation. The navigator itself has been developed by Tuukka Hastrup as a part of Code for Europe program. The source is available for those interested.

Unfortunately the recent revision of data didn't contain data for Jyväskylä. So we had to use an older data dump instead. This might have something to do with the fact that the current bus service provider will likely be replaced with another one next year. At the same time the responsibility for the data will be passed on to the city so that should help with the problem.
I have been thinking of scraping the data from the company website. It would not be that hard. If there is enough interest I can definitely do that.

Thoughts on the Main Event

There were a couple of talks explaining the significance of open data on local level and potential applications. One interesting application had to do journalism. The director of a local parking garage company had stated that they are running out of space and need to build yet another storey. There was no data to back this up nor would they provide it when asked (considered confidential). They do provide realtime data on their website, though.

You can likely guess what happened next. Heikki Salo wrote a simple script to fetch and store the realtime data to generate time series. Surprisingly the graphs showed that storeys weren't fully utilized. Another storey isn't needed for some time after all. And even the director had to admit this publicly.

Another application was provided by Tuomas Räsänen. In his case he scraped the meeting data provided by the local council (terrible format) and plotted it on a map. Klupu has inspired people at the capital to develop something similar. I guess it's our turn to one up them again.

The last application implemented by Esa-Matti Suuronen on top of weather data provided by Ilmatieteen laitos has life saving implications. Hyppykeli simply displays whether or not it is safe to skydive based on the current wind conditions.

These cases in addition to that public transportation navigator give us some idea of the power of open data. Sometimes it might take some extra effort to make the data usable and open but after you have the data you can build very interesting things.

If the data is available, it is possible to think out of box and implement something like a way for the blind to see. BlindSquare achieves this by combining data from various sources and enabling the blind people to hear what they should be seeing. How is that for technology?

Thoughts on Konstruktori

Whereas the main event was really popular, around 100 people or so, only around twenty or less appeared at Konstruktori, a pre-event of Instanssi. The timing wasn't perfect as it coincided with a holiday so that could explain a part of it. Also the PR work could have been more effectively and we could have made it easier to participate remotely.

We did get some concrete results out of the event. For instance we translated most, if not all, strings of Froide to Finnish. It is a German made application that allows the people to request data from the government. This simplifies the process somewhat and makes it more approachable and you might say democratic. The easier it is for people to demand for information the more likely the government is to make parts of it open given there is a very concrete incentive.

I worked pretty hard on a couple of projects of mine. I restored an old project of mine, jkl-event-scraper. It simply scrapes the event data of Jyväskylä and provides it in a usable format. I modernized the innards and replace zombie with combination of request and cheerio. In addition I implemented a small API and gave access to the events in a calendar format (iCalendar). Particularly latter work is considered experimental.

In another project of mine, it2rest, I wrote an API for a Google spreadsheet I help to maintain. The spreadsheet simply contains some basic information on local IT companies I am aware of. Having an API available makes it much easier to consume. I intend to use the data in another project later on.


I hope the event worked as a catalyst locally. I would love to see more data become available, and more importantly, more applications to be developed. Having data is cool but having actual applications is better.

There are some clear benefits to having government data open and publicly accessible. It encourages transparency and improves efficiency, something governments aren't particularly famous for. I see it as a natural step towards a more participative democracy.