Living in a World of Data

Alan Dix1,2

1 Talis, Birmingham, UK

2 InfoLab21, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

Keynote at ASSETS 2011, Dundee, 24-26 Oct 2011.

Download draft paper (PDF, 151K), slides (2 up, PDF, 588K)


The web is an integral part of our daily lives, and has had profound impacts on us all, not least both positive and negative impacts on accessibility, inclusivity and social justice.  However, the web is constantly changing.  Web2.0 has brought the web into the heart of social life, and has had mixed impact on accessibility.  More recently the rise in API access to web services and various forms of open, linked or semantic data is creating a more data/content face to the media web. As with all technology, this new data web poses fresh challenges and offers new opportunities.

Keywords:web2.0, API, open data, physicality, embodiment, empowerment, long-tail, inclusiveness

Extended Abstract

Computers, and more critically the Internet, has enabled us to live in a parallel world of the virtual, where Negroponte's bits rather than atoms are most critical. Like the faerie lands in folk tales, this is not dissociated with the real world, in particular, the people of the virtual world are (usually) those of the real world; however, it does offer the potential to break some of the physical and, to a lesser, but still real, extent, the social and material constraints of day-to-day life. This is evident in chat rooms, multiplayer games, and second life, and epitomised in the character of Zona Rosa in Gibson's Idoru.

Technology is never static, and changes over recent years offer both potential benefits and also potential barriers for a more inclusive society. Web2.0 has created a focus on 'the long tail': serving the very many, very small interests; this offers hope for the more marginal in society for whom virtual connectivity can create groups large enough to be significant in a market-driven economy. However, the proliferation of AJAX-powered interfaces offer rich user experiences, yet often at the expense of accessibility.

The rise of a more data-focused web is now changing things further, with open APIs, micro formats and the semantic web. These technologies make alternative third-party interfaces far easier, both on multiple devices (important for the 'next billion' users in the developing economies) and potentially also for different perceptual and physical abilities. Furthermore our own personal data is easier to sense, distribute and analyse offering medical and assistive opportunities, and government open data is allowing community and activist groups to create mashups reflecting unique concerns.

However, potential and opportunity do not mean inevitability. Statistics from the Indian open data initiative suggest that the majority of users are older, more highly educated and male - perhaps simply reinforcing existing power structures. Potential must always be actively realised. Standing at a cusp point in the development of the web, we can make the difference to the future.


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Alan Dix 18/8/2011