Government collection and misuse of personal information may be giving big data a bad name, but a speaker at TEDx in Auckland on Saturday cast a positive light on the state’s databases.
Lillian Grace, founder and head of Wiki New Zealand, spent her allotted 14 minutes at the event — that was also addressed by former prime minister Helen Clark — describing how the wiki project “makes data about New Zealand visually accessible for everyone”. Much of her raw material is from government databases.
Grace, whose talk was entitled “Know your country”, is infatuated with big data and the uses to which it can be put, although she acknowledges many people don’t share her enthusiasm. “I know everyone is suddenly scared of what can be collected — and legitimately so; we need to be careful about what data we collect and how we do it — but I think it’s a new area for everyone and I’ll be intrigued to see how it unfolds.”
Grace’s eyes were opened to the extent of publicly available data in her former job as a research assistant at the New Zealand Institute think tank.
“We don’t know what to do with the data we already have,” she says.
She’s also been surprised at the willingness of organisations to share their data. The National Library, for instance, volunteered data on book-borrowing behaviour from throughout New Zealand.
“Most people, regardless of what organisation or industry they’re in, have data that is relevant to them that they’re interested in and they want other people to know about it.”
Grace has so far been relying on 20 to 30 public data sources, such as Statistics New Zealand, the National Library, the Reserve Bank, Treasury, the Police; and international bodies including the UN, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank and the OECD.
“We’ve been having conversations with others about data we could use that hasn’t been in the public domain that would be okay to share on an aggregate level.”
The goal is to inform, she says.
“We’re pushing the boundaries with open data, big data and incredible interactive animations for presenting data, yet most people still don’t know simple information.”
As the name implies, Wiki New Zealand is open to contributors, but all uploaded data is audited before being graphed and published.
“We present data in a simple visual form without analysis. The purpose is to keep it as unbiased and as accessible as possible.
“If you think of Wikipedia, it’s as though it’s your place — if you don’t know something it’s a good environment for learning — and that’s what I want for Wiki New Zealand. You’re not going to be hit over the head by what somebody else thinks you should think.”
Grace, who manages the site with one full-time contractor and a part-timer, says since its December launch and after promoting it with just a single tweet and Facebook post, about 15,000 unique visitors have found Wiki New Zealand. They spent an average of nearly three-and-a-half minutes there.
The site aims to bring in money through donations, and has two “topic area patrons” — Xero and manufacturing industry body NZMEA — that provide sponsorship but have no say in content.
The inspiration for Wiki New Zealand, however, is not commercial. Grace believes the running of the country shouldn’t be left in the hands of just a few people, and that armed with information, we can all play a part in determining our future.
“We’re all responsible and when we know our country and understand how it is doing we can make good informed decisions that will lead to the best outcomes.”