Home Can We Use Public Data to Save the Economy?

Can We Use Public Data to Save the Economy?

Yesterday we reported that Data.gov and several other Web-based public data outlets may be closed as a result of proposed budget cuts. The Sunlight Foundation is trying to save these sites you can learn more about that here.

But as Clive Thompson points out in an article for Wired, these public data sites were never living up to their promise or potential in the first place. “Bureaucrats still snooze atop mountains of public data, with no political imperative to release it,” Thompson writes. “It’s not something senators and congresspeople fret about while nursing martinis with lobbyists.”

What could both save Data.gov and make it more useful? Thompson suggests that we hammer home the potential open data has for job creation.

Thompson cites startups such as BrightScope and MyCityWay that use public data. “BrightScope did more than $2 million in business in 2010 and now employs 30 people,” Thompson says.

I’m intrigued by the notion. I’ve written before about how information technology is reducing the total number of jobs available and not creating enough jobs to offset the ones it automates makes obsolete. I’ve wondered if there’s anything IT can do to stimulate, instead of depress, the job market.

Is public data the answer I’ve been looking for? There is of a course a strong market for people with data mining skills. But what about everyone else? Earlier this year, Samasource founded Leila Chirayath Janah wrote a post for TechCrunch about how online work could save America.

Samasource connects people in Kenya with what it calls “microwork” – simple online tasks. Samasource workers are paid per task. According to Chirayath, “Big companies use microwork to improve and enrich large sets of data, to train computer algorithms, and to handle many other routine business processes.”

Data munging can be a boring, labor intensive process. Could public data + startups + data munging microwork = real jobs for Americans?

I’m not so sure. Even if there were a boom in businesses powered by public information (which assumes companies are able to generate real, non-commodified value out of public data), would the these microjobs pay enough to provide a decent standard of living? Considering that workers will in competition with people throughout the world, it sounds like the answer is probably no. And keeping the global competition in mind, I’m not sure there will even be that many jobs to go around.

It would be nice if Mechanical Turk was used for something other than spamming. But I just can’t see public data being the thing that fuels the U.S.’s economic engine.

So how about hackers? Do you need public data and a fleet of paid data mungers to make your startup a reality? Is public data what will save the U.S. job market?

Apologies to international readers who aren’t interested in saving the U.S. job market.

Photo by Daniel Lobo.

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