TEDxUCLA 2014: Open 2.0
Open data changes lives
Today, I want to share a story of something very small and how that can transform the lives of you, your families, and the people around you.
So I have an interesting job with the government. My job is to be the evangelist for data.gov which is the open data initiative for the White House.
Now, I think that there’s something in the government that allows you to have superpowers that will enable each one of you to look at things a different way, to make different kinds of decisions about what you do and to change the lives of people around you.
Now, if I were saying I was going to give that to you today, you might be looking for suitcases of small unmarked bills. You might be looking to see if I’ve got a breeding ground of radioactive spiders ready to bite you and give you superpowers.
But in fact, what I have is data. And not just any data, but open data.
Ah, now why is this important? This is important because data that’s open means that it’s structured. Think about when you’re preparing your family budget. The data about what you spend and what you have to spend is really important to you. Being able to share that with other people in your family.
Well, from the government’s perspective, we want to share as much data as possible. And we want to do that because we understand that it leads to innovation, to new ideas, to transformations that we could never imagine inside of government.
So what do I mean when I say open data? It’s all these zeroes and ones, these bits and bytes that come together to create structured information that can help to inform us. Open means that it’s accessible to anybody. Anybody anywhere in the world can download data. It means that it’s unlicensed or it’s freely licensed so that you can do with it whatever you would like.
If you want to make a profit and start a new company by using this data, that’s wonderful. If you want to use this data to try to understand if there’s corruption in the government, that’s awesome. We want you to use data in ways that will transform your life and the lives of others.
But it’s really not my story today. It’s really the story of all of you, and what you can do when you walk out of here today. Because today, as I’ll tell you later, is a very special day.
But what I want to do is I want to tell you the stories of six groups of people, regular citizens who were bitten by radioactive spiders — I’m sorry, who used open data in a way that empowered them and others to really change their lives. And these are stories that are just regular people.
So the first story talks about something that we all take for granted every day: the ability to take a breath. Something that most of us don’t even think about. And yet 23 million Americans suffer from asthma.
So a small group of entrepreneurs got together and said, “What could we do to help?” There’s lots of medications on the market. Everybody who has asthma carries an inhaler with them because once they have trouble breathing, they have to use the inhaler immediately. It’s kind of a reflex reaction if you have asthma.
The vast majority of those 23 million people are actually children. And so when we think about that, we think about a parent sending their child off to school and not knowing if they’re going to have an attack. Not knowing if their child is going to stop breathing that day. What kind of stress does that put on a family? What kind of stress does that put on a child who’s trying to learn?
We know that asthma is actually triggered by environmental issues. And so these entrepreneurs realized: what if we used GPS data? That’s data about knowing where you are anywhere on the planet, it’s an open government data service. What if we use that GPS data and put a little GPS device inside everybody’s inhaler? Then when they had an attack and they took their inhaler, it would mark where they were. Simple, noninvasive, totally painless, no effect at all other than what happens is at the end of the month, when they go to visit their doctor, a heatmap is created of all the locations: the playground, school, their businesses, their church, wherever an asthma attack was triggered.
What we found out was that in doing that, in just getting the knowledge of where asthma attacks occurred, it decreased the daily incidents of asthma attacks because people were able to avoid those areas. It decreased it by 65 percent. So 65 percent of the time, parents, more parents knew that when they sent their children to school, they would be able to learn and not have to worry about breathing. The open data behind this made it possible in a way that was economical and innovative and agile that wasn’t available before.
The second story involves a group of people working inside and outside the government together and looking at disasters. So there’s a group called the Safety Data Initiative, led by Joe and Dan. And Joe and Dan were working with the American Red Cross to look at issues around hurricane safety.
So as it would happen, as they were working on this application, the idea they had was: wouldn’t it be great to be able to check in? If I was stuck in a hurricane, if I was stuck in an earthquake here in California, wouldn’t it be great to check in and let my family know I was safe so they didn’t put themselves at risk trying to find me?
Wouldn’t it be nice if I knew which roads were safe to travel? Well, we have that information from highway closures and from train transportation data. Wouldn’t it be great if I knew how to move across the city safely? Wouldn’t it be nice, if I was a first responder, if I knew where elderly and disabled citizens were so I knew who to evacuate first?
So all of that was being rolled into this app, and the application was not quite ready for prime time when NASA data started to show this hurricane, this superstorm called Sandy. So as Sandy started to descend upon the East Coast, we could easily see that there are going to be huge impacts to communities all along the northeastern seaboard. And as we did that, we pushed this development of this about as fast as we could with the Red Cross.
And in doing that, that first night that Sandy hit, 700,000 people downloaded the app in one night in order to be able to tell their friends that they were safe, to make sure that they could get safely across the city and for first responders to be able to get to the addresses they knew were most in need.
And that aftermath of Sandy, as people were picking up the pieces, some people were armed with data and knowledge in a way that empowered them beyond a regular citizen to help others around them and to be able to get to where they needed to go.
Now, it’s not just data here on Earth that we’re talking about. It’s also data in space. So for the last 30 years, I’ve worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where we do a wide variety of deep space exploration. Part of what we like to do is we like to make all of you citizen scientists. Now, I’m not talking about playing games for education, but I’m talking about actually having you do science with us.
So I know that maybe for some of you, you think you’re too old to be astronauts, and maybe that’s true. But you’re never too old to be a Martian. So I want to tell you a little bit about a citizen science activity that uses open data at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
So in Be a Martian, we uploaded 500,000 high-resolution images of the surface, surface of Mars, put those up in the cloud, and then created a series of games around them that actually, in playing the games, you help us to solve problems that we don’t have the funds or the manpower to solve ourselves.
Part of what we’re challenged with on Mars is that we have lots of data about the surface, but it’s not really sort of stitched together in a seamless map. Some of it’s taken with different spacecraft over different decades. Some of it’s in different kinds of resolution. So as you play the game, part of what you do is you help to stitch together the map of the surface of Mars, where images overlap, where they connect.
In doing that, you also look at the number of craters, the geologic formations. We teach you how to gauge the age of those formations and you help us to identify interesting places where we want to go back to Mars, where we want to land the next rover and potentially send a colony one day. So all of you in playing Be a Martian cannot only use that government data, but also generate new data and new insights that help us to shape how we’re going to move forward as humanity.
The next story is one towards the future. So with data, one of the things that we want to be able to do is not just make a better decision about where we’re going to go for dinner because we have a good rated restaurant with an A in the window. But we also want to look at where we might live in the future, how things that we’re doing today will affect the future.
So part of that is climate change. The President recently created a new climate data initiative. And we look at models of how the Earth is changing and how that’s affecting things all across the globe.
So one of the things that’s become very apparent is that polar ice is melting. Just last week, we saw a huge ice shelf in Antarctica break off and we’re seeing huge amounts of ice melt in the Arctic as well. So when we do that, part of what we’re challenged with is how do we deal with that issue?
I mean, here in California, it’s very apparent. There’s 24 percent of the U.S. population that lives in areas that will be affected by the rise of the oceans, because as polar ice melts, that water reintroduces into the ocean and raises the level of the ocean.
This map just shows you very quickly the the routes we currently send ships through on the Artic and how that will change in the next 20 or 30 years, that new routes, because of this melting of sea ice, will be dramatically different. And it’s not just the effect on the ecosystems there and the polar bears and the people who live there. But what does that mean to all the rest of the planet and how we understand it?
The next story is about three brothers: Ben, James, and Steven. Amazingly wicked smart guys, they all got accepted to and graduated from MIT. Things look good for them. And then at the age of 29, Steven was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. And his brothers watched him slowly deteriorate, his physical abilities slowly deteriorate, and feeling helpless, armed with all of this information and knowledge they had, feeling helpless to help their brother.
They realized it wasn’t really them that could help him. He needed to have a community of people together. So the brothers created an interesting community called Patients Like Me. 250,000 people are currently involved in Patients Like Me. People with rare diseases that maybe there’s only another couple dozen people on the planet who have this disease, and they were never able to reach out and talk to anybody.
And now suddenly they no longer feel alone. They no longer feel abandoned or as if they’re the only one in this situation. They can band together with others with more prevalent diseases to be able to talk about clinical trials that they’ve tried, new methods and treatments, how they’re feeling, how their disease impacts their relationships with their family.
The data that Patients Like Me uses comes out of the National Institutes of Health and Health and Human Services data about medical efficacy, about clinical trials, about different hospital recovery rates with certain diseases, about new opportunities for people to participate in drug trials. All of this information helps to power what is an awesome community that both brothers ended up putting together to help battle not just disease, but its effect on families across the nation.
Now, our next story is also about health and disease. And I know you think it’s about a cow, and it is at the end of the day. But it first starts with a friend of mine named Jimmy.
So Jimmy grew up in Africa and he grew up during a time of famine. Now, now here in the United States, we’re very blessed with thinking of hunger as a relatively isolated, temporary situation. But it’s not that way in much of the world. And as Jimmy was growing up, the famine was so bad that his parents had to decide which of their children would live and which would die. And Jimmy watched his younger sister starve to death during a famine. And he and others swore that would never happen again, not on their watch, and not while they had the ability to do something.
So a group of people came together and realized that the difference for most people on the planet between thriving, surviving, and dying is a very thin margin indeed. And sometimes that comes down to a single crop, a farmer bringing in a single crop, or a farmer having a single animal die. And for much of the world, that animal is a cow.
So this is about an application in Africa called iCow. It’s an awesome application. What iCow does is it realizes that most of the people in Africa do not have access to the kinds of things we’ve seen, right? They don’t have access to high-speed wireless, they don’t have a computer. In fact, in Uganda, only 3 percent of the population has access to electricity.
So what are we going to do with open data to help mitigate hunger in Africa? What we’re going to do is realize that 82 percent of the population there has access to a mobile phone. 82 percent! And that means not a smartphone, but a phone that is actually one that’s going to do SMS texting.
So the iCow team put together data from many different agencies, many different countries, actually all of the G8 countries worked together on this application to look at cow breeds, diseases, the treatments for those, the best practices for those kinds of cows. And what farmers do in Africa, particularly in Kenya and Nigeria, is they text in to subscribe to iCow and they say, this is the breed of cow I have and this is how old she is.
And they send back weekly updates: this is how much milk you can produce, here’s some places, a local vaccination clinic just opened up, here’s the kind of gestation, you should be breeding your cow now, this time of year, and this is the gestation. And if they have a problem with their cow, if their cow turns sick, they can text in and get a veterinarian to text back and answer.
We’ve seen changes, very small changes that make a huge difference. One farmer said he was able to double his milk production. He only has two cows. The sale of that extra milk meant that he could send his kids to school for the first time. These are the kinds of changes that data can make in people’s lives and the kinds of impact it has.
The data we get down from the government, from the government satellites, looking at weather data, is amazing. Weather data, weather.com and provided by NOAA and NASA, information from the global positioning satellite for the U.S. Air Force, together those fuel a 100-billion-dollar industry.
Just a quick show of hands, who in here has a smartphone or a tablet or a computer? That’s a lot of hands! I bet you that on those you have at least five to 10 to 20 applications that use GPS or weather data in helping you navigate safely across the city and helping you find where you want to go in the world.
So where do you find all of this? All of this data is available for you on data.gov. 450,000 datasets from across the U.S. government and universities, national labs, international organizations that together can put data into your hands and make you all superheroes.
Now, I know you’re saying you’re not coders, you’re not technologists. You don’t know what to do with the data. But you know what? I mentioned earlier that today is a very special day. Today is a day when data from all over the world is being used in 123 cities. There are 15,000 people today working on the National Civic Day of Hacking.
This is a special day that only occurs once a year. But any time is available, and what we’re looking for is people with ideas. You don’t have to be a developer. You don’t have to be a designer. You don’t have to be a coder. What you need to do is have an idea.
Have an idea like Jimmy did, of how you want to change the world. Have an idea about, like Dan did, about how to help people in a hurricane. Have an idea like James did about how to help his brother with a rare disease.
These are the ideas you all have. You all have the ability to change the world around you. And I’ve got the data to empower you and make you those superheroes that, you know you can be.
So today, when you leave this room, feel free to hop on down to City Hall. I just left 500 app developers there hungry for ideas as they’re hacking away. Feel free to jump online with Code for America, that puts people who have tech skills connected with people like you who have ideas.
Because together we can unleash the power of that data and you can all be superheroes. Thank you.