Distilling Data, Realising Information Equity

Behind all websites, apps and social media these days, you’ll find information lurking. Pretty much every bit of info, indeed everything you see on a site, from pictures to stories, from comments to event info, comes from a content database.

That’s a store of all sorts of kinds of information that assembles – in an instant – what you see on your tablet, phone or laptop when you type in a URL to a browser, or click on a link, or do a Google Search. Without a database, there’s no web for you to read on a laptop, or app for you to scroll across on your phone.

So the first bit of work making any new web project is usually about thinking about sources of data or information. It’s the fuel that keeps the web running; without data, there’d be no web as we currently know it.

Just like in the Industrial Revolution, when iron smelting works sprang up near mineral deposits, forests and rivers, to fill and fuel the furnaces and carry away the product, web projects need a good supply of data to keep them running.

How easily that information is gathered, stored and used, is critical to the success of any web venture. The quality of the info is also really, really important. Is it out of date, or incorrect? Has it come from the organiser of the original event, or has someone else glimpsed it wrongly on Google, or in someone’s Facebook timeline?

Getting audience-facing info right is always really important: imagine spending hours driving across Kent with the kids to visit GEEK Festival in Margate, only to discover you’re a month too late. Or there’s no disabled parking. Or there’s no postcode for your satnav.

Information has equity

So yes, to bring the Culture Kent pilot project to life, we need to get as much data about activities into the database as possible. Stories about culture events, exhibitions, performances, open days, lectures, talks, participatory events and information about places too. And yes, it needs to be up-to-date.

Where is it best to get that from? From the culture venue; from the theatre itself, from the heritage site, the library; from the original information source, wherever possible. We know, however, that time is short, people are doing many jobs at once and that there are quite a few different places culture organisations can take their info to get it online. So it’s always going to be a challenge to make it as easy as possible to source our data fuel from culture places.

That’s the major commodity of the web today. Data, information, content, events, listings. If you know where to go using Google, it’s quite easy to search out, site-by-site, place-by-place, some of key facts you need to know to make a culture visit. And of course, many people in the arts are now making good use of social media, so you are quite likely to trip over some great tips about things happening on Facebook or Twitter.

That’s fine, but what if you don’t know where to look? What if you are coming from abroad to Kent for a holiday? Or what if your business depends on info? What if you’re starting a new company selling T-shirts outside visitor attractions when cool events are happening? Maybe you’re planning a website about great places to eat near galleries or museums? You won’t have time to spend endlessly searching the web for information.

This is why listings websites are useful; getting event info into one place makes it very much more useful to people in many more ways, than if it’s chaotically spread round the web like a patchwork quilt of possibilities. Beyond being useful, there are more subtle effects at play here. If there’s just one place that has lots of specialised or unique information, it can develop the value of this raw material. Accumulated, aggregated or collected in one place, data has a very tangible value – what we can call information equity.

Importantly, if you’ve generated original information straight from local sources, you can own the copyright of the information, or at least share the rights around the info with the originating venue. In that case, you have a reasonably simple rights situation with your eventual outwards-facing data product. If the collection of data you’ve made includes info culled from other copyrighted data sources, it’s likely to be much harder to develop and realise the value of these assets.

Realising the value of our information equity

Ok. We’ve made great partnerships, we’ve found ways to encourage individuals to input info to a database, we’ve got people helping others to do it; we’ve got all kinds of systems and roles in place to build up a valuable reservoir of information. How do we make it work for our audiences, our customers, our stakeholders, other publishers, software spiders, search engines, web developers and more?

In other places in the digital world, business development plans for the database or info collection are put together. It needs to be kept current, and so people feeding in info have to get some sort of return which makes their effort worthwhile. This might be greater footfall or ticket sales in their museum, theatre bar or restaurant, or click-throughs to their website. Ensuring people providing info feel they are getting a return on their own investment could be one of the key outcomes or objectives of the business plan.

The business plan might focus on mapping out the needs of the initial partners, investors or stakeholders; so there could be a mix of investor needs, public sector needs, education needs. Clearly some of these needs may conflict, or contradict each other. If an investor has put funds in, and requires a return on the investment, it could well be at odds with a public sector funder who wants free access to the info for all taxpayers. A public sector approach to information equity could well involve making the info copyright free for all to re-use for not-for-profit use, or even profit-making use where regeneration is a regional priority.

The answer to developing a well-structured business plan to do justice to these complex scenarios is likely to be found in mapping, describing and understanding the sources feeding information in, and then mapping all possible current and future uses for info coming out of the database.

It is likely, looking at how others exploit value systems within web databases, that there will be different kinds of output from our single info source that can be made useful to all the partners, investors and stakeholders. These differing kinds of outputs might vary from basic, copyright-free ‘open’ data for the public via a free app, to higher-level, copyright info available to commercial web publishers at a guaranteed quality level via a service level agreement.

In between those two approaches, archives, research and education users could have a direct connection to the database via an ‘API’, allowing them to interrogate the info and re-use it in new creative or socially-centred ways. We don’t really know what kind of wider uses people might have for cultural information yet – so the mapping and business modelling around it needs to have room for future changes in use.

From a public service point of view, and with sustainability and legacy use as a powerful driver for development, locking down the possibilities of what could be done with this information would be as short-sighted as building databases that never get connected to the web; or only collecting info that meets a narrow set of current business needs.

In essence, we could see this project like an oil refinery: refineries pump crude oil into great towers where it is heated and ‘cracked’ into many types of lighter oils and fuels, like thick bunker oil for ships, gear oil for cars, heating oil for boilers, petroleum for cars, kerosene for lamps, aviation gas for planes, light oil for sewing machines and 3-in-1 oil to spray on rusty locks.

Data aggregation, development and publishing works just like this. We can work to collect and distil a series of different information products based on the cultural data we collect, making sure it really works at each level, having a different price or implied value at every point, meeting the needs of all of our pathfinder partners.

Jon Pratty, 15 February 2013