Safety Datapalooza: When Open Data Saves Lives

0 Comments15 January 2014


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I had the honor of participating yesterday in an event put on by the White House to highlight how Open Data can literally save lives. Like other similar events, the Safety Datapalooza was based on the belief that government data has great value for both business applications and public good. We explored that theme in a panel moderated by Nick Sinai, where Waldo Jaquith of the U.S. Open Data Institute, Tyler Duvall of McKinsey & Company, and I gave a broad overview of Open Data’s potential.

The Safety Datapalooza, however, is special. Whether it’s Open Data about product recalls, food contamination, hospital infections, or any number of other issues, Open Data can be critical to public health and wellbeing. Among other things, it can have a powerful impact simply by keeping consumers informed so they can avoid risks. As Robert Adler, Acting Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, put it yesterday, “An informed consumer is an empowered consumer.”

The importance and breadth of safety data attracted about 400 attendees to yesterday’s event, with high-profile speakers from a wide range of federal agencies: the USDA (who hosted the event), Department of Transportation, State Department, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Department of Labor, FEMA, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of Justice.  Several of them  announced new steps their agencies are taking to make federal data more available and useful. For example, the State Department has a new API that will make it easier to access its data on the risks of foreign travel. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is launching a App Challenge to encourage developers to make more use of their data. Through OSHA, the Department of Labor is challenging developers to produce a “workplace noise app” that will enable anyone to monitor decibel levels at work – an important need since the government can only inspect less than one percent of workplaces each year.

Acting Chair of Consumer Products Safety Commission: An informed consumer is an empowered consumer.

Like other Datapaloozas, this one included presentations from several data-driven companies as well. Some of these companies have safety as a central part of their mission.  Keychain Logistics, which matches freight carriers to companies that have freight to ship, uses government data to ensure that the carriers are qualified and have good safety records., developed in response to a Department of Labor challenge, provides a map showing businesses that violate labor laws in your local area, and encourages you to take action through social media. Buster is using government safety data to help make group transportation (in buses, for example) more safe. And BeSharp is combining sensors and algorithms from government research to warn police officers when they’re getting dangerously sleepy.

While ventures like these have an admirable mission, safety does not seem to be a major business driver, at least not yet.  Of these four, only Keychain Logistics is now a full-fledged operating business. The GovLab’s work on the Open Data 500, our study of 500 companies that use government Open Data, has also turned up relatively few “safety companies” so far, although WeMakeItSafer is a notable example.

Crowdsourcing can be lifesaving in natural disasters – or in cases of cardiac arrest

But Open Data may contribute to public safety in less obvious ways. Many crowdsourcing, sharing, and mapping platforms can play a critical role in times of natural disasters, as representatives of GetAround, TaskRabbit, and Geofeedia described at the datapalooza. To appreciate the potential of crowdsourcing in particular, think of the role Ushahidi famously played in the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Or consider PulsePoint, another nonprofit, which messages volunteers who know CPR to summon them when someone nearby is going into cardiac arrest.

It’s almost a paradox:  Large, open datasets may have their greatest impact when they come down to an individual level. A new father who avoids buying a dangerous crib at a yard sale, a student on a field trip riding on a safer-than-average bus, or a cardiac victim whose life is saved by CPR, may all benefit from Open Data, whether they happen to know it or not.

- Joel Gurin, Founder and Editor, 

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