The Washington Post had an article the other day on six maps that show the anatomy of America’s vast infrastructure: the electric grid; bridges; pipelines; railroads; airports; and ports and inland waterways. The article has beautiful pictures of these big, important things that make it possible for society to work for as many people as it does.
All of the maps were created using data from OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap is brilliant. A map of the world that is collaboratively maintained and free for people to use. OpenStreetMap is also part of a new type of infrastructure, one made of data. That data infrastructure also underpins our society in the same way that other more visible bits of infrastructure do.
Data helps engineers understand where physical infrastructure is needed, what capacity is required and how to build it safely. Data, like maps or journey planners, helps people discover and use infrastructure. It does many more things too, even if some may seem a little weird.
Without data infrastructure, and without it being so easy to use, then the Washington Post might not have printed those beautiful pictures; engineers wouldn’t find it as easy to plan and build physical infrastructure; and people wouldn’t find it as easy to use that infrastructure.
A seventh map
As well as the six maps that the Washington Post chose they could have used this one from openaddresses.io. Every dot is an address.
It’s a bit patchier than the other maps that the Washington Post showed as some USA address data is not openly available. Either the data doesn’t exist or it us kept behind pay walls which makes it hard to use. This is a problem. Everything happens somewhere and addresses help us locate all of those somewheres wherever they are in the world. This data is vital infrastructure and must be freely available for anyone to use.
Luckily data infrastructure is a lot cheaper and quicker to build than roads and waterways. The US government recognises the benefits of making this data available and is working to do it.
A blank map
In the title of this post I promised a blank map. It is not quite blank but there are no dots.
Address data for the UK is not openly available, it is locked behind paywalls. It is as if there were toll roads all over our road infrastructure. Just as fewer people would use roads if they had to pay a toll every few miles, fewer people use address data because of the paywalls. In both cases there is less social and economic impact.
Meanwhile the UK’s address data is not collaboratively maintained, like OpenStreetMap, and the quality suffers as a result. People who move into new build houses often discover that their address is missing from the lists stored in computers. They can’t order a pizza, a sofa or even register to vote. People know the address exists, it is the computers that don’t.
A couple of years ago I worked with a team of people trying to fix this. We failed. A team in the UK government are now trying to open up UK address data, I hope they succeed.
Data gets overlooked, even when a journalist is using it
Data infrastructure is part of the government’s responsibility in the same way as the other forms of infrastructure that the Washington Post wrote about. They are all vital infrastructure that underpins our society. They should be both protected and made widely available in exactly the same way.
Much of our data infrastructure is patchy or difficult to use. Things like maps, records of land ownership, ompany information, where and how we can vote.
Data infrastructure should also form part of the public debate alongside other forms of infrastructure. The danger is that data is misunderstood and overlooked, even when a journalist is using it to draw some beautiful pictures.