Dimitrios Zachariadis – Public information belongs to the public
Collective blogs, Tilaphos and Tilaphos-reforest are two of the few cases in the Greek web where it becomes obvious that the collective intelligence of the users might put a remedy to some of the lingering deficiencies of the central state. Dimitrios Zachariadis, the driving force behind the two projects, explains that their aim is to disperse, through the Greek web, reliable public information regarding the loss of forest land, so that it becomes clear and substantiated with evidence, that the decline of forests in this land is an everyday issue so close to us all.
Thanasis/Pavlos: How did you come up with the name “Tilaphos”? Is there a principal motive for the creator or the participants of Tilaphos-reforest? Can you say a few things, about the citizens’ participation of in the project, either through their public or through their personal contact with you?
Dimitrios Zachariadis: When something new is created, one has the wonderful opportunity to name it. The name “Τήλαφος”, in English “ti-la-phos” is the acronym for “Time Lapse Photographs”. Tilaphos is the name of a minor open source application, which is part of a bigger application for registering road problems and other data of public interest. The word sounds so much like a Greek name that many in the TCL community (the language in which the application is being written) asked me what it meant in Greek. Well, in Greek it means “Telematic Presentation of Road Incidents” (Τηλεματική Απεικόνιση Οδικών Συμβάντων) – “til-ap-os” (Τηλ-απ-ος) where “π” is turned in to a “φ” (ph) because the “ο” of the word “Οδικών” aspirates (in ancient Greek). Thus, with the new blog, a new name was created.
The issue of public information has been in the back of my mind for quite some years. It is the deeper motive behind the creation of Tilaphos- reforest. Last summer’s fires pushed me to the initial creation of Tilaphos and the recording of burnt areas through GPS. It was something like a personal way out of the sorrow for what was the forest near my house, which is now gone.
The reception that Tilaphos had with the recordings of the burnt areas using GPS was really a surprise. I received lots of messages from people who found the attempt worthy, maybe because it identified with their own need of a way out of the disorganization and the inactivity that characterizes the official state, which is incapable to channel the anxieties and the needs of the people, who care about the environment, to creative actions.
The interest of thousands of Greek visitors and the many messages of solidarity that Tilaphos received during the first 2-3 months were very important, especially since the blog avoided the angry but facile protest, which usually attracts concordant disappointed people and boosts the visits, while in the long run, it may lead to pessimism and defeatism.
At the same time I noted two new things:
a. Even the warmest supporters of the GPS recording effort, some of whom had a direct relation with the scientific subject, faced great practical difficulties in contributing their own GPS data. For me it was easier, because I replaced some exercise time with walking around the burnt areas, which, however, proved to be very difficult or impossible for others.
Finally, it became clear to me that notwithstanding mine and others’ good intentions, a massive practical outcome was very difficult to achieve, and the attempt could not yield useful results, not because there was no interest, but because the methods Tilaphos suggested could not be followed by its public.
b. Discussions with Elias Tziritis of WWF and forest officials led promptly to the examination of other data sources and the “discovery” of the Government Gazette site (E.T.). The E.T. site was familiar to me from the past, but one discovers the real value of a tool only when he really needs that tool. The reforestation coordinates published in the Government Gazette by the national forest offices, although frequently incomplete, presented the answer for what could be a creative way for the friends of forest and visitors of Tilaphos to offer something productive, without having the burden to walk through the burnt areas.
The experience of Tilaphos- reforest shows, by the way, that all who participate actively, have already had a personal interest in environmental issues before they discover Tilaphos. The motive of those who participate in the project is their interest and their agony for the protection of the natural and forest resources. It is not coincidental that the majority of those who contribute data are friends or members of environmental groups or blogs.
Thanasis/Pavlos: What do you and what do the users of the datablog expect from this project? How are entries organized and put on the map?
Dimitrios Zachariadis:The datablog is a online experiment on collectivity: “Online” because it presents itself, collects and spreads information exclusively through the web. “Experiment” because the attempt has a start, a duration and an end (considering the finite amount of data in reforestation declarations), and it attempts to prove a hypothesis: everything that seems difficult to be carried out by the state, is in reality much easier and can actually be realized by a bunch of volunteers at no cost. “On collectivity” because the data entry is collective and the data belongs to all who need it unconditionally and without any limitation.
Our common objective is to disperse, through the Greek web, reliable public information regarding the loss of forest land, so that it becomes clear and substantiated with evidence, that the decline of forests in this land is an everyday issue so close to us all. There is a need for detailed and reliable raw data which can be utilized by scientists and, at the same time, be also useful to citizens and journalists. The only thing the datablog does is to promote, using modern e-tools, existing information which is hidden in the Government Gazette. For this reason, we always include along with the information we publish the link of the specific issue of the Government Gazette that contains the information, so that all data can be cross-checked by anyone who cares to.
I wouldn’t say that the data entries are somehow organized beforehand, even though sometimes there is certain direction of where it would be better to focus. For example, the question “which comes first, the maps or the statistics?” has not yet been answered. There are instructions in three videos and one illustrated ‘how to’ and whoever wishes to, can freely use an online tool to make a data entry.
In an exceptional case of participation, that of Calliope Charkianaki, who spent a lot of personal time for the data entry and thus she acquired great experience, a more developed administration tool was used, which is not available to others to prevent bulk errors, but which helps to reduce the time required for the entry of large number of data by creating a sort of “production line”.
The participation of others to the data entry helped a lot in the debugging of the tools and the improvement of the operation of the datablog, something priceless for a project like this.
Thanasis/Pavlos: How was the datablog implemented, technically speaking? How do you manage the administration and the issuing the collected data?
Dimitrios Zachariadis: With a lot of personal time and much less sleep!
The first thing regarding the technical implementation was to maintain zero cost. The need to keep data available for a long time without having to pay the cost for the disk storage and the server maintenance, the daily backups, etc. was the choosing factor. For reasons of their own, certain big companies offer free storage, bandwidth and technical utilities that could be properly exploited.
Secondly, we wanted the capability of dynamic data search using existing tools in order to make it easier for the end user to use the data. This includes search engines, as they are one of the main ways of finding pieces of information in the web. The search application of the Government Gazette was an example to avoid because, while it is helpful for retrieving issues of the Gazette, it is not adequate for queries on reforestation areas, making it quite difficult and sometimes even impossible to recover that kind of data. Besides, the content of the Government Gazette’s issues is not accessible by the search engines.
Thirdly, we had to find/create the appropriate tools to utilize the data, so that the, possibly non-expert, end user would be interested to search and study it without any mediators.
Fourthly, a very important requirement was to find a way to enter the data so that it would not be hidden, but instead presented along with the contributor’s name, allowing for immediate use of it, even though it might contain errors, rewarding in this way the contribution. This attribution of credit in every piece of data entered is a very important condition for the operation of Tilaphos.
A major issue regarding data entry by untrained users is the correction of errors. Some types of errors take as much time to correct as if entering new data, or even more, because they need careful inspection and they always require an out of “production line”, one-off procedure. Hope is to have as few errors as possible, in order to avoid the loss of time and the disappointment which comes with errors, something that is until now fulfilled.
One project objective, which we will start to implement now because we needed data in order to begin, is to develop widgets, that could be used in any web page for publishing datablog’s data without having to visit our webpage. In this way, we hope to make it easier to diffuse the available reforestation information.
Thanasis/Pavlos: What does web. 2.0 mean for you? What kind of microformating applications could result from similar projects?
Dimitrios Zachariadis: The concept of web 2.0 is quite fluid, I think. For me, the view of the inventor of web, Tim Burners Lee, is very close to this new concept for the web, without, of course, excluding numerous other paths that the human imagination could follow. Nevertheless, almost infinite text-based data already exist in the vastness of the web, taking into consideration the human capability of recovering it. What doesn’t exists in a satisfying degree is a standardized form, a formal outline, which can describe the information’s structure in a way that machines can automatically process it. This is what Tim Burners Lee calls the Semantic Web.
Most of the existing websites, and this naturally stands for Greece too, seem simply to follow the logic of printed paper with text and graphics. This does not facilitate the access of information that is found spread in millions of pages, because without the proper tools it is impossible to be exploited.
According to Tim Burners Lee, as he puts it in his book “Weaving the Web”, the next step for the development of the web is the creation of search engines, whish would be able to add some rational processing to a search, so that instead of looking for pages containing keywords, we could actually search for information answering general questions. In our reforestation case a question would be “Which municipality in Greece has the most illegal occupations per citizen per acre?” A search engine in the Semantic Web would visit the Tilaphos-reforest datablog and find there some answers using the existing data tagging.
Microformat technology plays such a role in providing a structure to the data to a satisfying degree: without altering the appearance of a webpage, just by changing the content of some HTML attributes, namely “class” and “title” and following some coding conventions, it is possible to develop, in HTML, the structure that a browser needs in order to understand the information it is presenting. Currently there are a lot of microformat tools, and if I am not mistaken, future Firefox editions would offer natively the capability of exploiting them, a feature that presently exists with plugins like Operator, Tails Export etc. We can in just one click, for example, send directly to our mobile phone a complete address, including phone numbers, from a web page conformant to the microformats spec, without having to copy anything. We can view maps using information contained in pages without having to find and enter coordinates. Imagine all of the reforestation info that exists in the Government Gazette marked using microformat specs and how easy the recovery of the data contained would be.
The Tilaphos-reforest datablog works exactly like this: it tags the data entered by the user from the Government Gazette, so that when it is pasted to the datablog as a comment, it has the right format for the presentation tools to recognize the information, while at the same time it presents the data in a form that the end user can read easily. Due to the limitations of HTML code allowed by Google, the data/ comments tagging is similar to microformats but not the same. It needs one more step to make it absolutely compatible. The data conversion to this final form using the microformats’ “adr” and “hCalendar” specifications will start soon.
One can apply the microformat specifications today in every page he is allowed access of the HTML code. New specifications can also be created by following the microformat principles, for data that is not covered by the ones that are available. Names, addresses, calendars and events are commonly used for such applications of microformats. Every page containing such pieces of information can be coded easily in conformance with the microformat specifications, offering visitors the value of the already existing semantic web tools.
There exists also, of course, the social side of web 2.0, the social media, which offers plethora of communication possibilities and the means for forming social and interest group networks; they are enjoying tremendous popularity in the web. I do not have any doubts about the social role that the social media play, but I have serious reservations whether this freedom of speech or expression constitutes a form of “e-democracy”. Although the freedom of expression is extremely important, it is not the only virtue in a democracy. The social media can balance to a certain extent the deficit in voicing citizens’ opinions, a deficit that exists in contemporary western representative democracies, without, of course, filling the institutional gap: what is essential is to voice opinions in a political agora, so that informed citizens will be able to take part in the political decision making. In reality, without participation in the political decision making, the freedom of expression seems to be an empty word, politically speaking, more of a dispel of dissidence or a mere protest, without however yielding significant gains in the political level, at least until now.
With these views in mind, Tilaphos-reforest seeks to consolidate the participation in the blog to a useful practical result.
Thanasis/Pavlos: When is an information considered open (licensing, internet web service)? What’s your experience from the domestic and the international public administration regarding data collection?
Dimitrios Zachariadis: Information written on paper is practically closed information nowadays. Can anyone imagine a graduate forestry student, wanting to write a paper about the decline of forest land in Greece and having to enter one by one all the data published in the Government Gazette issues? He will simply never write that paper because he will choose another subject. The state may reply, turning a blind eye, that this information is open and freely accessible, although, in reality, it is almost closed, since it cannot be easily exploited using existing means, considering the current mode of producing content and knowledge. Imagine what would have existed from Tilaphos-reforest, hadn’t the Government Gazette offered the possibility of viewing its issues on the web, just as it was the case a few years ago: there would only exist 10 entries on burnt areas recorded with a GPS, rather than the 1830 entries of declarations of reforestation, created within a month. In a few words, it is not sufficient that the information be published somewhere; it should also not cost an arm and a leg to use it, otherwise it cannot be considered open and free.
The first question that needs to be answered is whether one wants information to circulate in the web and for what kind of usage. If the answer is “yes”, then there are three ways to serve it: for humans readers, for machines or for both at the same time. Most of the western countries have answered the aforementioned question with a “yes” and a lot of information has been put into the public domain. As a result, numerous web services have been created as well as web standards, so that public data would be usable by machines, or by intermediate services and end users. People and organizations, who are interested in using such data, produce better results both quantitatively and qualitatively, while other people are better informed for what is going on. The provision for free access to public information can be found in the Greek Constitution, Article 5A – (Right to information), where the right of every citizen to participate in the Information Society is explicitly stated. Therefore, theoretically, the Greek state has answered the question with an unconditional “yes”.
Recently, I searched for some data from the National Statistical Service of Greece. The National Statistical Service of Greece has been collecting a plethora of reliable data about the Greek society and state (down to the detail of small settlements) over many decades and offers it without restrictions, stating at the organization’s presentation that foreseen data users are “the business world, scientists, analysts and citizens”. Most of this data is in the form of PDF documents, while there are also some in XLS format. Such a reliable source of information should follow a strict standard form in order to avoid errors and double entries (or omissions) of information and disambiguate the codes used. There are examples of double entries and omissions in the National Statistical Service of Greece data, even in the XLS files, which indicate, as far as I can tell, hand-written interventions into the final documents.
As far as I know, the state administration and many public organizations (e.g. universities) produce a significant number of quality raw data. Until now, the unresolved problem is that there is no data release policy. A confirmation of the lack of such data release policy can be found in the texts that some of these organizations post to their web pages as their objectives. There is rarely, if at all, any mention about providing reliable data to professionals and citizens, unlike the case of the National Statistical Service that was mentioned above. The Ministry of Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works is, unfortunately, a negative example, even though it’s the ministry of works and engineers. The Intellectual Property Organization is another sad example: it addresses the Greek citizens only in … English.
Thanasis/Pavlos: Finally, what does public information mean? How difficult is, let’s say, for the Hellenic Mapping and Cadastral Organization to implement the Cadastral Register through a convenient flexible schema? Would such a suggestion be utopian?
Dimitrios Zachariadis: The slogan “The public information belongs to the people”, that is Tilaphos’ heading, is a tautology. Public is something that by definition belongs to the citizens. Nevertheless, in Greece, the slogan is still an unfulfilled requirement because public information produced on taxpayer’s money remains in the drawers of civil servants, as if it were their property.
Every piece of information, which is not defined as private is in essence public: almost everything that can be physically accessed by the public belongs to the public sphere: roads, sidewalks, city block limits, field, river, forest and shoreline borders. Public is every piece of information collected with public money which does not break the restrictions of Article 9, 9A and 19 of the Greek Constitution for the protection of personal data and the privacy of communications. Namely, research, intellectual or artistic creations ordered, paid by the state or endowed to the state which also owns the intellectual rights, statistical data and electoral results, are all public property. Public is every piece of information published in the issues of the Government Gazette, as is the obligatory information which must be written on public documents (addresses, postal codes, the state borders, county and municipality borders etc.) or/ and is defined by state laws.
The Hellenic Mapping and Cadastral Organization, for example, has collected topographical and cadastral data of Greece either directly by their own means, financed by the state through the ministry of Environment, Physical Planning and Public Works’ budget and that for the public investments or by charging license fees, or indirectly by other public organizations, which are obliged by law to provide them to the Organization. Nevertheless, the Hellenic Mapping and Cadastral Organization does not provide ANY data free of charge, not even the municipalities’ borders of the new national Kapodistrias project. These cost the outrageous amount of €1450 while their copyright statement makes their use in the web illegal. Of course, I am not referring to the whole Cadastral Register, which might involve issues of personal data regarding property, but to elementary territorial data of the country’s administrative structure.
The realization of a policy of openness for such pieces of information in the web does not face any technical difficulties, since the technology involved is already mature and mostly free to use in the form of open source software. If the Hellenic Mapping and Cadastral Organization allowed free use of this kind of information, I am pretty sure many would be interested in providing it through the web. Tilaphos could be one of them, using the technical specifications based on the microformats principles.
The results of the current shortsighted policy can be observed by anyone who navigates the web for the aforementioned administrative regions or for other territorial data of Greece. The only available data comes from American universities and are country or prefecture borders, many decades old, of unsuitable accuracy and of no practical use for anyone who lives in Greece. There are also other international sources operating on a participatory base, geonames.org for example, which offer a great number of point data, for Greece too, through a web service, but you cannot find an official Greek free topographical data source, not even a university. It’s quite noticeable that even the National Statistical Service of Greece, which generally releases statistical data into the public domain, does not provide any of the topographical data it collects for free.
If one envies the progress of other western countries or of companies which operate there, one should pay attention to the conditions which nourished and sustain them. Many maps used by Google, Yahoo or Microsoft, for example, are based on satellite images provided freely by NASA. One can read the following remarkable for its frugality and comprehensiveness statement, under the photographs published in the web and coming from American public organizations (here from NOAA): “This image is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made during the course of an employee’s official duties.” I do not think that further explanations are necessary.
A policy of open access to public information in Greece is not utopian, because the current state of affairs here lags far behind what happens abroad. Count the number of web services, which the Greek state operates along with the universities and all the greater public sector organizations. I doubt that you will find anyone offering even the trashiest piece of information freely to the Greek citizens. A policy for open data access is necessary to allow the Greek society to reach a higher level in its ability to produce reliable content and knowledge. The improved quality and quantity of content and knowledge gradually elevates the level of all social processes that take place in a society and increase the citizens’ trust in the institutions and the people who govern them.
Nevertheless, the argument that such a proposal is utopian rather presupposes the acceptance of the outdated idea about a state-of-experts and citizens-subjects, which has already reached the limits of its ability to produce results and now seems to be faltering between disasters with which the state-of-experts cannot cope, like last summer’s fires or the water contamination with toxics, and the indifference and cynicism of the citizens-subjects.
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