The ASBOrometer Mobile App
My colleague Adrian Stevenson commented on his eFragments blog recently that “The Linked Data movement was once again in rude health at last week’s ‘Terra Future’ seminar“. Adrian’s report on the conference highlighted the potential of Linked Data in geo-location applications – and the importance of this area can be gauged by the presence at the seminar of two very high profile surprise guests: Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Professor Nigel Shadbolt.
Adrian’s report mentioned the ASBOrometer application which is “a mobile application that measures levels of anti-social behaviour at your current location (within England and Wales) and gives you access to key local ASB statistics“. As this is freely available for iPhone and Android mobile phones I installed it on my iPod Touch (yes, it works on that device too). I was interested in seeing a Linked Data application which may be of interest to an end user, as opposed to the various Linked Data application I’ve looked at recently which seems to display RDF triples in various ways.
Within a minute or two I had installed the application and discovered a 14.4% “PBS ASB perception rating’ from my home in Bath (which, it seems, indicates a low level of anti-social behaviour).
I was also able to view a map showing the ASBO ratings across England and Wales. I used this to view the ratings for my home town of Liverpool – the red icon shown in the accompanying image indicates that, you will probably not be surprised to learn, there is a high level of anti-social behaviour – 31.4%.
Incidentally the somewhat inappropriately-named Leaderboard button informs me that Liverpool is lagging behind Newham (47.9%), Tower Hamlets (45.9%) and Barking and Dagenham (39.1%).
This application processed data that had been provided by the data.gov.uk initiative. We can start to gain an appreciation of the momentum behind this initiative from Gordon Brown’s recent speech on “Building Britain’s Digital Future” in which he spoke about “building on this next generation web and the radical opening up of information and data” and also explicitly mentioned Linked Data: “Underpinning the digital transformation that we are likely to see over the coming decade is the creation of the next generation of the web – what is called the semantic web, or the web of linked data“.
In addition to Gordon Brown’s announcement there is also an article in the Daily Mail on “Asbo App for iPhone tells you how anti-social your area is” which tells us that “Housebuyers looking for a nice area to settle down in can check how many of their potential neighbours have Asbos, thanks to a new smartphone application“. If the Prime Minister and the Daily Mail are both talking about Linked Data applications it is clear something important is happening!
Where’s The Linked Data?
The article in the Daily Mail (correctly, I feel) focussed on the uses to which the application could be used and didn’t address how the application processed the data. My interest, however, is more concerned the role of Linked Data in supporting such applications – although I have an interest in the use cases too.
On using the ASBOrometer initially I did wonder where the Linked Data came in. Wasn’t the application simply retrieving data provided by Government departments and visualising the data? What’s new? And reading the FAQ I find that the application processes the ASB CDRP Survey Full Dataset and the Number of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), both provided by the Home Office. The former data is available as a Microsoft Excel file and the latter as a CSV file (provided in, it seems Microsoft Excel format).
So the Home Office seems to be providing open data (available under a “UK Crown Copyright with data.gov.uk rights” licence) but not Linked Data. I’m pleased that the Government is providing open data – and as we have seen, this allows developers to produce valuable application (on 20 February 2010 it was announced that after achieving over 80,000 downloads in two days the ASBOrometer became the number 1 free app in the UK iTunes App Store). But where’s the Linked Data?
I’m not the first person to notice that the Government seems to be conflating Linked Data with open data. An article on “Watching the geeks: do Gordon Brown’s promises on government add up?” published in the Guardian’s Technology blog cites to this analysis by Tom Morris of data published on data.gov.uk:
here are the aggregate results of the data.gov.uk format verification exercise: HTML – 252; XML – 5; Word – 4; RTF – 1; OpenOffice – 1; Something odd – 85; JSON – 9; Nothing there! – 190; CSV – 12; Multiple formats – 1211; PDF – 468; RDF – 10; Excel – 408. TOTAL: 2656
Sadly, this is over-optimistic. I’ve manually checked some of the data that has been categorised as JSON and RDF. Most of it is not actually correctly categorised – either people clicked, say, ‘RDF’ when they meant to click ‘PDF’, or they have seen an RSS or Atom feed and categorised it as RDF.
What this admittedly imperfect dataset is basically saying is that the vast majority of the ‘data’ on data.gov.uk is not actually machine-readable data but human-readable documents.
There’s a danger, I feel, that of Linked Data being conflated with Open Data. If, for example, a policy maker makes the decisions to provide Linked Data along the lines of data.gov.uk what does this mean? Does this mean providing a CSV file on a public Web site or does it involve choosing appropriate ontologies, ensuring that persistent HTTP URIs are assigned and providing access to an RDF triple store?
There’s also a danger that Linked Data is being treated as a requirement to develop applications such as the ASBOrometer. Such applications can be developed without requiring Linked Data.
Such issues have been raised by Mike Ellis recently in a post on entitled “Linked Data: my challenge“. The post was aimed primarily at the development community and there have been a number of responses from software developers. The comment I found most interesting, however, was made by Kingsley Idehen what sought to reassure Mike: “don’t worry” and went on make what appears to be a significant announcement “Making Linked Data from CSV’s is going to be a click button oriented Wizard affair (any second now, I will be unveiling this amongst other things)“.
So maybe the providers of data sources shouldn’t be concerned about the need to provide RDF (with all the associated complexities) – perhaps the next stage will be tools which will make structure data (perhaps as basic as CSV files) available as Linked Data – and if this demonstrates the benefits of Linked Data a subsequent stage may be to provide the data as native RDF. On reflection this has parallels with the Web in the early days of its use in CERN. One of the early data sources was the CERN telephone directory – and this was marked up on-the-fly by a script which avoided the need to commit resources to marking up data for what was then a very speculative service – the Web.
So should the push be for open data, I wonder? Might it be beneficial to defer the debates related to the complexities of Linked Data and RDF to a later data?