A guest post by Karen Jewell, a Data Scientist who attended SODU2020.
I went into the weekend of SODU, headset and coffee at the ready, thinking that as SODU was both my first experience of an unconference and of Open Data, I wouldn’t be able to participate much but that I could take the opportunity to learn from the brighter and more informed voices around me. Well, it turns out I was quite wrong about my involvement with Open Data.
In the networking sessions of the first day, I introduced myself as someone who didn’t work at all with Open Data, had no experience of it and was here to learn about it. Yet as the event carried on through the day, many discussions and concepts seemed familiar to me and in the afternoon of the first day I had that “ah-hah!” moment. I realised it wasn’t true that I did not work with Open Data, I did, and actually had done so quite a bit in the last 12 months. I just had not realised that is what it was called.
Open Data is data which is not owned or controlled, and is free for use and distribution. Having only just completed my studies in a MSc Data Science at the Robert Gordon University 3 weeks prior, free data was pretty critical to my work as a student. Not only was I able to practice concepts using freely available datasets, 3 of my 8 taught modules required me to source my own dataset for that module’s assessment. To rephrase that, I needed Open Data to complete my degree. Data Scientists are aware of Kaggle, the UCI ML repository, and a quick online search for Scotland’s data will return the Scottish Government’s statistics portal. We see these sources as free data we can practice on, but we may not have recognised it as Open Data, I certainly didn’t until SODU took my blinkers off.
Coming out of SODU, I started to wonder how many other people were in the same metaphorical boat. Were they not answering the call for involvement because they did not realise the availability of Open Data affected them too? To test the idea, I set up a non-scientific survey on Instagram and asked my peers the question “Do you know what Open Data is?” with a simple “Yes/No” response. Of the 22 persons who responded, 3 said Yes (14%) and 19 said No (86%). In a perfect world, I would have also had a follow-up question asking if they had used information from a list of known Open Data sources to confirm the theory, but we will have to do without for now.
Yet in the age of Covid-19 where everyone is quite capable of quoting a statistic or method in every online argument for and against, how many of us haven’t realised we are benefiting from the availability of Open Data when we quote new case counts, % positive tests, and infection rates in our conversations on a daily basis?
I attended SODU to learn about Open Data, and I learnt I’d actually been using it all along. Several prominent themes discussed at SODU included the need for a community of practitioners, having a central point of access, and having evidence of the benefits of supporting Open Data. The question that bugs me now is, how do we know who our practitioners and where our success stories are, if they can’t even recognise themselves? Maybe, there is an opportunity to do some work here?