Looking for swine and the data society

Looking for swine and the data society

Oh great. First the *&%$#@ %$#*%& on Wall Street sinks the financial systems of the world, we create a national debt that's as big as ... well, the national debt, and now we have the beginnings of what could turn out to be a swine flu pandemic (do pigs just call it the flu?). As a precautionary measure, perhaps we should commit porcine genocide and have bacon with every meal.

As of this writing, the World Health Organization has just raised the threat level to Phase 5 which is described as "a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short."

Oh, joy. Of course the WHO Web site got sick as a result of this -- the rush of visitors just completely porked their servers.

Allow me to digress for a moment and note that the New York Times just published a piece that stated, "nine people -- ages 6 to 57 -- appeared to have swine" (worded that way, makes it sound like an outbreak of husbandry).

Anyway, by the time you read this we may all be staying away from public places (including work), hunkering down in our houses and waiting for the whole thing to go away. Kind of like the financial crisis except we know at least our 401ks won't get sick because they are already dead.

So now that we're facing this grim prospect, I'm wondering if you included global pandemics in your disaster planning? I'm guessing that's a "no." And that seems pretty reasonable. After all, unless you are of a serious survivalist mentality, you probably haven't included provisions for other catastrophes either, such as the earth being struck by a comet, atomic warfare wiping out humanity and bringing on a nuclear winter, or having your data center attacked by hordes of flesh-eating zombies lusting after the succulent flesh of Twinkies-fed support staff.

What's become apparent to me during the nascent pandemic is that hard, raw data on what is happening is really hard to find. Sure, there's lots of information, data that's been chewed over and spat out as news, but the raw stuff, the stuff you can find and manipulate because it has context and is structured and is therefore useful, is incredibly rare.

I wanted to set up a system to track the appearance of individual cases of swine flu to test some software I was playi-, er, evaluating, but all I could find was inconsistently formatted content -- in other words, stuff that I'd have to apply my brain power to and expend time to transform into a usable format. The sad thing is it would be so easy to make this data machine understandable but the various governmental agencies involved just don't see the value yet.

This is part of what the Semantic Web is supposed to solve, but that really addresses the technical end of what starts as a human problem -- getting people to think about how to share data as opposed to how to consume information.

I think there's a conceptual problem in our society -- we talk about being an "information society", but that actually means that a small number of sources are acquiring raw data, filtering and massaging that into what they think is information, and then most of us consume that output. The result is that we, the consumers, can only draw a limited range of conclusions ... the truth is out there, it's just not available.

But what if we started to think of ourselves as the data society? Rather than being consumers of information selected and manipulated by others, we would all be consumers of raw data as well as producers of information. We have the personal productivity tools to do just that, but much of the data out there, particularly governmental raw data, is hidden away.

So, while we're hunkering down and trying to stay healthy, let's start thinking about what it would be like if we had access to all the data out there instead of just the information we're given.

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