Data alone isn’t enough – Tim Davies on “complexity and complementarity”

If people aren’t using data it isn’t just a problem for web developers – it’s a problem for journalists too. If not enough people are looking at information on crime, politics, health, education, or welfare then it makes our work harder.

On that subject, Tim Davies writes about the challenges of ‘getting data used’ and the inclination to focus on data-centric solutions. “Data quality, poor meta-data, inaccessible language, and the difficulty of finding wheat amongst the chaff of data were all diagnosed [at one hack day] as part of the problem,” he reports. “Yet these diagnosis and solutions are still based on linear thinking: when a dataset is truly accessible, then it will be used, and economic benefits will flow.

Owen Barder identifies the same sort of linear thinking in much macro-economic international development policy of the 70s and 80s in his recent Development Drums podcast lecture on complexity and development. The lecture explores the question of how countries with similar levels of ‘raw materials’ in terms of human and physical capital, could have had such different growth rates over the last half century. The answer, it suggests, lies in the complexity of economic development – where we need not just raw materials, but diverse sets of skills and supply chains, frameworks, cultures and practices. Making the raw materials available is rarely enough for economic growth. And this something that open data advocates focussed on economic returns on data need to grapple with.

“… One way of grounding notions of complexity in thinking about open data use, that I was introduced to in working on a paper with George Kuk last year, is through the concept of ‘complementarity’. Essentially A complements B if A and B together are more than the sum of their parts. For example, a mobile phone application and an app store are complements: as the software in one, needs the business model and delivery mechanisms in the other in order to be used.

“… Investors, payment processing services, app store business models, remmitance to developers, and often-times, stable jobs for developers in an existing buoyant IT industry that allow them to either work on apps for fun in spare time, or to leave work with enough capital to take a risk on building their own applications are all part of the economic background. Developer meet-ups, online fora, clear licensing of data, no fear of state censorship of applications built and so-on contribute to the social and legal background. These parts of the complex landscape generally cannot be centrally planned or controlled, but equally they cannot be ignored when we are asking why the provision of a raw material has not brought about anticipated use.”

You might also look at similar factors in open data use by journalists and citizens. Any suggestions?

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