David Chartier at Ars Technica notes that social networking services must break down the silos that separate them or decline into irrelevance like AOL. As quality, free content grew on the Internet outside of AOL, people abandoned the premium service — two-thirds of them. Chartier notes that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are next. People are pouring too much value — photos, notes, Tweets, posts — into these sites to tolerate having to recreate their content on each individual service. As soon as a unified point-of-entry to social networking is unleashed — the free, public Internet to AOL’s “walled garden” — today’s industry giants may become tomorrow’s lumbering dinosaurs.
If we won’t tolerate silos for general Web content, and we won’t tolerate silos for social networking, why do we tolerate silos for public data?
Just to map crime and population in my neighborhood, I have to download shapefiles for Census tracts from one U.S. government service, population statistics from another, and then hope that I can track down crime statistics from some obscure bureau of my municipal government. (Adding insult to injury, that municipality might even try to make me pay for them, even though I already have with my tax dollars.) After this maddening scavenger hunt comes the fun part — I get to fight with my mapping platform to somehow make all this data from different sources look somewhat coherent.
It doesn’t have to be like this. At Rhiza Labs, we’re already deploying tools that provide a seamless, unified point-of-access to many different databases. Thanks to the Information Commons, Pittsburghers can use HumanServices.net to search both the county Department of Human Services and the local United Way’s human service directories while also getting bus directions — without even knowing they’re looking at multiple databases.
Don’t like our tools? Build your own. We provide full REST API access to our platforms, so you can build your own interface or even compile a mash-up. United Way of Pittsburgh has its own spin on HumanServices.net that still accesses the same data. And if you don’t like our database: Pull the information and take it elsewhere. FluTracker syndicates every update to RSS, Google Earth, and CSV, and major corporations and government agencies are using these feeds to complement their corporate security planning.
Right now, services that can’t integrate silos of data take their toll on us — by forcing us to make decisions with less information. Soon, services that can’t integrate silos of data will feel a toll themselves — a decline into irrelevance as a new paradigm, based on information liquidity, takes hold. Call it glastnost for the information age.