My kids are still in their “Bob the Builder” years. At some point Bob went “green” – left Bobsville to build a sustainable community in Sunflower Valley, complete with grass-growing roofs, hand-pumped water and solar powered trailers. He even got a new catchphrase – “Can we fix it? Yes we can!” has been joined by “Reduce, Recycle, Reuse.” While it’s a little over the top, I can’t complain. Every reminder helps. This last weekend though, when Bob chanted his new mantra, I heard a different voice echo in my head – one saying reuse, remix… it sounded eerily like Eric Miller at SemTech keynotes, in consulting presentations, in print. I guess I got the message.
For our environment we want to encourage people to think carefully about what we actually need to consume. We need to think about that notion in regards to our data stores as well. Are they full of clutter? Are we afraid to get rid of data in case we might need it later? I don’t think it should be about ownership – we “own” data about as much as we “own” the earth – we are stewards, not controllers. Yes, there is data we need to more carefully manage, as we would our home and property; government regulations help us define our responsibilities there. But how much time and effort do we want to spend managing all of that data? How many resources – human and infrastructure – does it take? Can we acquire some of the data we need from a trusted source – a trusted steward who will commit to maintaining its integrity? I’m not suggesting we create monopolies – we need diversity of thought, and may need to subscribe to more than one data provider. It could be simple or complex data you outsource – do you really need to maintain your own list of US States or Countries for your online form? Do you NEED to download a local copy of a paper, or do you simply want to make notes on a certain paragraph? The costs can range from free to exorbitant.
Find new ways of using data. If we can turn billboards, magazines and plastic shopping bags into purses, we can transform mere metrics into compelling visualizations and startling statistics. One compelling example is Gapminder. Using data from the United Nations, the team under Hans Rosling have developed interactive charts and maps detailing global trends that provide greater impact for consumers in a world of information overload. The same data we usually see in boring columns and rows, have new form: new impact.
How many of us have taken a plastic container from the grocery store and used it later to store leftovers in the fridge? Or to carry our lunch to work where if it gets lost, no worries? We can do the same with our bits of data. Really, this notion of data reuse has taken off already – new mashups are being generated at an exponential rate! We can use this same creativity inside the firewall – let your geeks play with the data, give them sandboxes and free time to explore. At the very least, don’t prevent them from trying new things when security restrictions have been met. Anthony Bradley of Gartner called this the MacGyver Principle at the Gartner Web Innovation Summit this past week in Los Angeles. MacGyver didn’t go collect the right tools for the job – he used the resources already available. This is where serendipity occurs (and in MacGyver’s case, survival) – unanticipated uses by unanticipated users.
As to the technologies themselves – there are options, just as we have in the real world!.Choose the tool right for your project. Wind, water, solar power – each option has a micro-climate for which it is best suited. Use the same consideration for your own information and technology projects. Will Microformats do the job? Do you need to use a W3C standard? Do you need a triple store, or can you start building on available databases? Think carefully, balancing the long term return on the investment.
One site I’ve recently come across is the new BBC Music (Beta) site. They’re taking data from their own radio play system, Musicbrainz, Wikipedia and more to create comprehensive profiles of musicians. I can’t do it justice – read about it for yourself.