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Hack your world

With a mass of new information now only a click or two away, people are learning to make online data do the things they want it to.

BY  JESSICA HUBBARD , 1 November 20110 comments

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As individuals, corporations and even governments make more information available online, people are beginning to find new, everyday uses for it. By tinkering with data and pairing it with user-friendly software, normal citizens – with entrepreneurial minds – are finding unique ways of making the mounds of information floating in the cybersphere an asset for you and me.  

Think of it as a friendly form of hacking. Instead of breaking into confidential files and wreaking havoc online, the world’s ‘closet’ coders and developers are manipulating data for the good of all.


The citizen developer

Those mainly responsible for this type of ‘hacking’ are often referred to as ‘citizen/rogue developers’, and they’re being met with a mixed response by software developers and other IT professionals.


According to research firm Gartner, citizen developers will be building at least a quarter of new business applications by 2014.
Citizen developers are programmers who are not directly responsible for or authorised to build software applications or tools for an organisation. They are usually people motivated by a need to improve a product, whether it’s to automate a task, streamline a user interface, or create a new feature that wasn’t possible with the standard software set released by the original developer. They can also be people who simply recognise a potential new use for data, and have the knowledge to build the tools needed to utilise the information.

According to research firm Gartner, citizen developers will be building at least a quarter of new business applications by 2014. Gartner defines a ‘citizen developer’ as ‘an end user who creates new business applications for consumption by others using development and runtime environments sanctioned by corporate IT’.

The positive outcome of the work of citizen developers is that products/services are further tailored to serve a niche market, or in some cases, information is used in new and unique ways for previously unidentified applications. This is sometimes referred to as data-driven innovation.

An interesting example of this type of innovation came out of the US, when the government made thousands of its data sets available to the public at Data.gov. Soon after the data was published online, somebody developed an application called Flyontime.us. It lets visitors view average delays of flights and people tweeting wait times at airports, allowing them to make informed decisions relating to their travel plans. It didn’t take long for the ‘paid’ techies to follow suit.

“Since then, search engines like Bing have used data that has come out of Medicare and Medicaid that allows you to see how hospitals are rated by patients and outcomes from those hospitals,” explained former US federal government CIO Vivek Kundra in an interview with Fortune magazine. “Also, an iPhone app allows an expectant mother, before she buys a crib, to scan that product and see whether it’s been recalled.”

Very soon, others began to recognise the potential benefits of making more information available to citizens. According to Kundra, 19 countries replicated Data.gov. In addition, 29 states in the US copied the Data.gov platform, and a dozen cities, including New York and San Francisco, have launched similar platforms.

In San Francisco, a group of entrepreneurial and civic-minded citizens decided to make better use of public data and push for greater transparency from the government by launching a website called San Francisco Crimespotting. By providing interactive maps and using a simple data visualisation model, the group aims to help its community become better informed about criminal activities in the area. Using the civic data available to them, San Francisco Crimespotting seeks to investigate things like the nature and frequency of crimes, instead of merely relying on the media or state authorities to provide information.

This statement on the group’s website provides insight into the thinking behind the project: “If the local papers didn’t report a rash of car break-ins in your neighbourhood, how would you know? The web opens up opportunities to find information without having to rely on which stories make it to the front page of the newspaper, or the lead story on the evening news. We need to be able to explore public information, to draw connections, and to see new possibilities for questioning. Crimespotting enables us to do more than search for the things we already know.”

Up close & not so personal

It’s not just governmental, commercial and civic data that is finding its way into novel applications and services. Personal data is also being incorporated into new platforms, with ‘user groups’ such as the Quantified Self network leading the way. The Quantified Self is an online (and increasingly offline) group that was founded in 2007 when two former editors at Wired  magazine began examining new practices that seemed (to them) to belong together. These included life-logging, personal genomics, location-tracking, and biometrics. They recognised that although these tools were being developed for different reasons, all of them had something in common: they added a computational dimension to ordinary existence. The group is now an increasingly popular online meeting place for people who are using the practice of ‘self-tracking’ to gather information and find new ways to use it in their everyday lives (and the lives of others).


An iPhone App allows an expectant mother, before she buys a crib, to scan that product and see whether its been recalled.
Vivek Kundra, ex-US federal government
Another indication that citizens are starting to do it for themselves – when it comes to creating cool applications for data, that is – is the growing attraction to free software development environments. Pioneering platforms such as Arduino – a tool for making computers that can sense and control more of the physical world than your desktop computer – provide an open-source physical computing platform and a development environment for writing software for the board. Platforms like Arduino are making it easier and more fun for amateur techies, teachers and students to develop software and find new applications for ideas and information. 

So does all of this mean that IT departments and professional developers are going to play less of an innovative role in the future, as the average person becomes more adept at developing new applications and improving existing ones?

eWeek quotes Gartner’s Erik Knipp as saying: “Citizen development skills are suited for creating situational and departmental applications like the ones often created in Excel or Access today. However, complex distributed applications and low-level, fine-grained developer decisions will remain in the hands of IT, while line-of-business applications will likely fit between the two and need to be carefully managed.”

So probably not. But we can look forward to many more intelligent and original applications that will add another element to our online (and offline) existence.