Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Data and data modelling and underlying assumptions

I feel that there was a huge disconnect between some groups of participants at #opengovt (http://groups.google.co.nz/group/nzopengovtbarcamp) in Wellington last weekend. This is my attempt to illuminate the gaps.

The gaps were about data and data modelling and underlying assumptions that the way one person / group / institution viewed a kind of data was the same as the way others viewed it.

This gap is probably most pronounced in geo-location.

There's a whole bunch of very bright people doing wonderful mashups in geo-location using a put-points-on-a-map model. Typically using google maps (or one of a small number of competitors) they give insights into all manner of things by throwing points onto maps, street views, etc, etc. It's a relatively new field and every time I look they seem to have a whizzy new toy. Whizzy thing of the day for me was http://groups.google.com/group/digitalnz/browse_thread/thread/b5b0c96ce08ca441 . Unfortunately the very success of the 'data as points' model encourages the view that location is a lat / long pair and the important metric is the number of significant digits in the lat / long.

In the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) sector, we have a tradition of using thesauri such as the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names. Take all look at the entry for The Wellington region:http://www.getty.edu/vow/TGNFullDisplay?find=wellington&place=&nation=New+Zealand&prev_page=1&english=Y&subjectid=7000512

Yes, if has a lat and a long (with laughable precision), but the lat and long are arguably the least important information on the page. There's a faceted hierarchy, synonyms, linked references and type data. Te Papa have just moved to Getty for place names in their new site (http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/) and frankly, I'm jealous. They paid a few thousand dollars for a licence to thesaurus and it's a joy to use.

The idea of #opengovt is predicated on institutions and individuals speaking the same languages, being able to communicate effectively, and this is clearly a case where we're not. Learning to speak each others languages seems like it's going to be key to this whole venture.

As something of a worked example, here's something that I'm working on at the moment. It's a page from The Manual of the New Zealand Flora by Thomas Frederick Cheeseman, a core text in New Zealand botany, see http://www.nzetc.org/tm/scholarly/tei-CheManu-t1-body1-d22-d5.html The text is live on our website, but it's not yet fully marked up. I've chosen it because it illustrates two separate kinds of languages and their disparities.

What are the geographic locations on that page?

* Nelson-Mountains flanking the Clarence Valley
* Marlborough—Kaikoura Mountains
* Canterbury—Kowai River
* Canterbury—Coleridge Pass
* Otago—Mount St. Bathan's

The qualifier "2000–5000 ft" (which I believe is an elevation range at which these flourish) applies across these. Clearly we're going to struggle to represent these with a finite number of lat/long points, no matter how accurate. In all likelihood, I'll not actually mark up these locations, since the because no one's working with complex locations, the cost benifit isn't within sight of being worth it.

Te Papa and the NZETC have a small-scale binomial name exercise underway, and for that I'll be scripting the extraction of the following names from that page:

* Notospartium carmichœliœ (synonym Notospartium carmichaeliae)
* Notospartium torulosum

There were a bunch of folks at the #opengovt barcamp who're involved in the "New Zealand Organisms Register" (http://www.nzor.org.nz/) project. As I understand it, they want me to expose the following names from that page:

* Notospartium carmichœliœ, Hook. f.
* Notospartium torulosum, Hook. f.

Of course the name the public want is:

* New Zealand Pink Broom
* ? (Notospartium torulosum appears not to have a common name)

Note that none of these taxonomic names actually appear in full on the page...

Yes is, clearly, an area where the best can be the good and visa versa, but the good needs to at least be aware of the best.

1 comment:

the lucid librarian said...

Great blogpost Stu... and very good to see the issues with the literal nature of human gaze brought to the front. Did make me wonder what the possibilities might be to allow for mapping using the numerical location (be it point or shape etc) and the ability to display multiple taxonomies allied to a location - thereby avoiding the need to adhere to a set of common place name terms?

the Lucid Librarian