Talk is not Cheap

6479325377_ba1fa998bc_z is not just about democratizing opendata in terms of affordability.  Its also about  widening the opendata community to something that regular citizens, businesses and students can understand and use in their daily lives.

And as we learned when we built NYCpedia in 2013, its all about creating context.  People don’t care about raw Big Open Data – thousands of datasets in a portal.  They care about Small Data – actionable information you can tell me now.

I’m not saying that data portals are not required.   To the contrary!  We’re saying that data portals should do more to contextualize the data – in terms of location, time, uses and conversations.

Conversational Context

As StackExchange has shown us, people prefer Q&A to reading dense reference material, reading user manuals or going through a knowledgebase.

Because “wisdom is in a crowd!”  A crowd asking the same questions, caring about the same issues.  The answers, as StackOverflow demonstrates, does not necessarily flow from the publisher, most of it actually come from the users!

In NYC’s vibrant CivicTech community focused around BetaNYC for instance, members of the community started to realize that people were asking the same questions.  And sometimes, new members hesitate to participate in the conversation for fear of making a fool of themselves.   Much the same way software developers “lurk” in Q&A forums looking up answers to previously answered questions,  a space was needed where all these discussions from the disparate threads, online and offline (mailing lists, meetups, google groups, townhall meetings, etc.) can be pulled together.


Discourse is the hottest thing in forum software at the moment.  In the short time since the open source project was launched early 2013, it has redefined internet forums – whose structure have essentially remained unchanged since the early 90s.  It was appropriately founded by Jeff Atwood – Stack Overflow co-founder.

Discourse is forum software created  using today’s technologies and users in mind.  It’s mobile-responsive, it works through email, it supports just-in-time loading of long conversations, and the list goes on.

Its already running large community forums –, and, to name just a few.

And now

BetaNYC is the largest CfA brigade in the country.  When Noel Hidalgo (@noneck) asked late last year if Ontodia is up to spinning up a community data portal, we jumped at the opportunity!

And when he asked if we can integrate Discourse early this year, we immediately got to work creating a CKAN plugin.

BetaNYC was in the process of consolidating its various mailing lists into a Discourse instance, and instead of using ckanext-disqus, which was the only available CKAN commenting plugin at the time, we worked with Volkan Unsal (@picardo), who was leading the consolidation effort, to use Discourse instead.

In the open data portals we use and have spun up, we noticed that hardly anybody was using the Disqus-based system.  We realized that this was because it was seen more as a complaint mechanism, not as a conversational medium.

It wasn’t a way to share expertise; asks somewhat tangential questions; or start discussions that may be informed by a dataset, but could be on a larger topic altogether.

With our CKAN-Discourse integration that we’re now beta-testing at, we hope to change that and enable data-driven conversations.

Starting today, it will now be an available option for customers.  Later this spring, we aim to open-source it and give back to the CKAN community.

More Context Enablers

And this is just the first value-added addition to our CKAN hosting service.  Leading up to Code Across this weekend, we’ll be unveiling new services/plugins every day.  Tomorrow, we’ll go into more detail about another way we’re contextualizing opendata with our CartoDB integration.


attribution: Let’s Talk image courtesy of Flickr User Ron MaderCC By 2.0

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