– Siddhartha (in Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha)
I first came across this quote when studying information retrieval algorithms at Drexel University. Always the intellectual optimist, I decided, for my final project, to research the algorithms used to achieve Google’s page ranking. The book Google page rank and beyond was my first step in the journey. As I found myself wearily wading through Markov chains, I found myself aimlessly thumbing through the book; I turned to the back cover, apparently thinking the secret to it all was hidden there. To my surprise, tucked in the back corner, was the above quote; in a sense, the secret was hidden there (this doesn’t usually happen).
The quote is an ironic one to be included in a book on page rank and search engines…after all, we all approach a search engine with a goal, and the engine is designed to anticipate it. The quote implies that having a goal is seeking, and there is a good chance that you will continue to seek and never find anything—leaving behind your goals is the surest way to find.
This is a very Buddhist concept; after researching and writing about the open government movement, and attending the unveiling of OpenDataPhilly.org during Philly tech week, I am beginning to think that the future of the Web is more Siddhartha than John Calvin.
I think the idea that the future of the Web is data (while expressed by great minds in the industry) is a simplification; data, after all, can be subjected to the laws of mathematics, can be precisely drilled down into to pull out precise answers to any question. However, Web 3.0, as some are calling it, is not founded on a database that is transactional–it is experiential.
OpenDataPhilly.org, developed by Azavea, a Philadelphia-based GIS software firm, is an embodiment of the experiential. It is the product of a fairly recent movement for open government. Tim O’Reilly, founder of the major tech media firm, has been an early proponent of open government; O’Reilly hopes “that Internet technologies will allow us to rebuild the kind of participatory government envisioned by our nation’s founders”.
This sounds lofty; to put it in context, we can use an example that comes to us from New York and involves a breakfast food: maple syrup. Well, not maple syrup in its physical sense, but in its aromatic sense. Starting around 2005, conversations in New York City could sound like this:
Jack: Do you smell maple syrup?
Liz Lemmon: Yes!
Jack: Don’t panic, Lemon, it’s probably not a chemical attack.
Liz: What do you mean, probably?
Jack: It’s probably just a strange wind pattern coming over those factories in Staten Island where food flavors are made. I don’t think it’s northrax.
Liz: What’s northrax?
[Tracy starts his Re-Run dance]
Jack: It’s a chemical agent we sold to the Saudis in the 1980s that smells exactly like maple syrup. But I don’t think this is it.
30-Rock, the popular sitcom, captured the question: Where was the smell of maple syrup coming from? If Jack or Liz phoned the city’s open311 network, their location would be mapped digitally; enough calls reporting the smell, patterns emerge. These patterns led city officials to the source, a factory in New Jersey.
Patterns derive from data but originate with people; sometimes it is based on experience, observation, that is reported; other times, data sets and experience interact to create new patterns. Opendataphilly has a collection of data sets, on the economy, education, and transportation. When this data is made actionable, through applications, visualizations and projects, we can better understand our communities, understandings that range from the mundane (the location of all food trucks in Philadelphia) to the life-saving (the location of hospitals and current patient capacity). Developers and designers can use these data sets; the community can suggest uses for them, or suggest new data that should be captured.
The beauty of the movement is collaboration…members of the community can recommend data and applications, developers can build, nonprofits and government agencies can contribute data. This is the Web as intrinsic to society, as built out of society, where the lines of social change and technology intersect. This model invites speculation on how developers and the social structures they develop for interact—the Web providing a platform through which a better Web is built. Buddhists would call this reincarnation; software developers might term it iterative development on the social stage. Iterations and reincarnations: enlightenment; it shows a path towards creation, and a hint at the future.
#the wider world