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Data Is Reality

Only through open data standards can societies safeguard their pasts and futures

Chairman, Data Governance Council, IBM

Close your eyes, and imagine that everything I discussed in my last article, “The Internet of Trees,” has already happened. Engage in a temporary suspension of disbelief. The world around us is now fully described in open data with URIs, or data links, identifying many of the objects in our communities. Streets and trees, fire hydrants and stop signs, crosswalk lines, and even crossing guards all have URIs. In maps and through open data portals we can explore data about when streets were built, who last repaved them, and how many layers of pavement exist beneath our feet. The data can also reveal why the road is graded and by what degree, for whom it is named and who named it, when it was given a route number, and so on.

The life and history of our trees are marked with open data too, telling us who planted them, how fast they grow, and when branches were cut for power line clearance. Open data even offers a window into who loved to climb the trees as a child and when people sought shelter under the leaves while waiting for trolleys, buses, and pickups. We will also learn about manhole covers, the reasons stop signs were put at certain corners, and when crosswalk lines were first painted white, then yellow, and then replaced with decals that look like bricks. And we can discover why crossing guards were needed to slow traffic for schoolchildren to cross during rush hour.

Open data and URIs will also describe churches, schools, bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, and department stores. People will record their experiences and reviews, the people they met, the conversations they shared, and the ideas they learned. And some day, in the not-too-distant future, all these details will be available to us through augmented reality heads-up displays (HUDs) that transform our vehicle windscreens into a contextual information guide. We will drive through our communities and choose alternative views to provide us with insightful information about what we see around us.

In addition, several video cameras embedded in the exteriors of vehicles and a sophisticated, onboard IBM Watson™ computer will use high-speed 5G networks to constantly compare objects surrounding the car with contextual information. Every window will offer a view that is augmented with pop-up information about each observed object. Side windows will have touch displays allowing passengers to select objects for investigation, or maybe voice commands will empower Watson to discover new relationships and information.

Bird lovers will be able to use a bird filter to identify each bird that flies near the car. Foodies will search for restaurants nearby that serve gluten-free cuisine and have excellent reviews. History buffs will see overlays of historical buildings, envisioning what it would have been like to drive around Rome in AD 79, for example. And shoppers will be able to discover which stores have sales and which items on sale in their sizes are in the stores as they drive past them.

Back to the future

The world I am describing is not more than five years off. It will be made possible by a combination of open data created and published by cities and citizens and advanced display technologies using video cameras and Watson to read visual information and compare it with URI tags. Sophisticated interfaces comprising touch screens, voice commands, HUDs, and hopefully automated driving will be the norm. All these technologies exist today and can be brought together in new generations of vehicles that transform driving experiences into learning labs where data defines the reality we experience.

Only one thing stands in our way: the National Security Agency (NSA).

When data defines reality, the organizations that control the most data define our lives. In disclosures by Edward Snowden, we have all learned that the NSA has created a worldwide web of universal surveillance. They can read our emails, Facebook posts, phone call records, blog posts, photos, videos, web chats, and Skype calls. And that scares many people who feel that their privacy is being violated.

But while spies can violate our privacy, real harm can occur only when the information gathered through spying is used to violate the rights of private individuals. And an organization that has the resources and means to universally collect information about what people do also has the resources and means to universally change the information about people and things in ways that can ruin and end lives.

Herd technology

In a recent blog post, I wrote about an experience I had driving on the Long Island Expressway. My car’s navigation system warned of upcoming traffic and urged me to get off at Exit 34. But I was in the far left lane, there was a long line of cars at the exit ramp, and so I missed it. At Exit 33, I got the same warning. Again I was in the left lane moving quickly, and the queue was too long to maneuver my car into the line. By the time I came upon exit 32, traffic had slowed in all lanes, and there were two lanes of cars waiting to exit.

I slowed down and looked into the drivers’ windows and noticed that all the cars lined up to exit also had navigation systems. Could it be, I wondered, that all the navigation systems had recorded the same traffic conditions and were urging their drivers to exit the expressway and divert traffic to another route, which would then become clogged with too many cars? I decided to test my hypothesis and ignore my onboard navigation system. Sure enough, after passing the exit there was no congestion ahead.

Now imagine how a person’s behavior might be affected if someone else is able to alter traffic information, change object tags, and route that person to a destination he or she had no intention of visiting. Imagine how dependent people might become on augmented reality information and what they might be influenced to believe and do if that information were changed to provide disinformation. How can a government be trusted to safeguard its citizens when its spying operations can know everything its citizens are doing and writing and thinking, and also have the power to change the data that describes those citizens?

Out in the open

Having a third party such as the NSA isn’t intrinsically dangerous because that party knows what we are doing. What is dangerous is the possibility that that party—be it in the public or private sector—can change the data that describes who we are, what we’ve done, and influence what we may choose to do in the future. That’s why we need open data standards that provide the authoritative basis for ascertaining where data came from, who touched it, how it was calculated, and who has certified its authenticity.

Without the widespread use of open data standards that provide proof of data we can trust, our reality can be augmented with lies that lead to dangerous outcomes, reduced freedom, and pervasive paranoia. We must safeguard the future and the past with data we can trust and standards that demonstrate that trust beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Please share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

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