The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

In Praise Of Open Source

Posted by The Futility Monster on January 21, 2010 @ 16:30

And if anything annoys Microsoft, it's gotta be good!

Today is being marked as the launch of the government’s plans to free as much of the data it has on a huge range of things. The site being launched, called data.gov.uk, is going to make lots of centrally-held data freely available to those clever boys and girls who know what to do with it.

If it works, the word “mashup” will be entering the common discourse within the next few years. A mashup is any kind of cross-referencing between two or more differing sets of data to produce a final result which represents the input data in one neat little number.

Not all of them are useful. For instance, who cares about a correlation between instances of diabetes and the average amount of light pollution in an area. But using information like poverty levels, average income, number of fast-food outlets… we could calculate where the Obesity Capital of Britain is!

Err. OK, maybe not. Cos that, of course, has already been done. Many times.

Messing around with free data is nothing new. The difference this time, though, is it is finally being put onto the world’s best information exchange. The Internet has revolutionised the world through the free flow of data.

And we’re only just getting started.

I confess, I’m no hacker. It’s certainly not going to be me that makes all these clever things come to life. But someone is going to.

And that someone is probably one of these heroic individuals across the planet that we’re all leeching off the backs of right now.

It is the open source and free software communities. From the application that serves up piping hot web pages (Apache, free), to the web browser you may be reading this in (Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome, free) – and the anti-virus scanner that’s keeping you safe as you do so (AVG, free; PrevX, free; Malwarebytes, free).

You may even write a letter, or mess around with spreadsheets and databases (OpenOffice, free). Then maybe even settle down to the greatest free game of all time, OpenTTD. And if you’re really geeky, you’ll be doing all that on an operating system like Ubuntu, SuSE or any other Linux platform. All free, in case you hadn’t guessed.

Those same kind of people who toil endlessly over lines of code for no reward other than a credit on a website or maybe on the About page… well, they’ll be the ones who are going to find clever and novel uses for all of this data the government is releasing. And they’ll all be better than the Diabetes-Air Pollution index that I came up with.

We really ought to pay them, of course. But no one really thinks about it any more. We’re taking a lot of things for granted now because they are merely free. We demand it. What loser would ever pay for a web browser any more?

It’s a strange concept, and one I’ll be returning to eventually. When I remember.

Perhaps I should set a reminder in my free e-mail program…

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