Monday, January 19, 2009

Information Infrastructure Projects

Today Obama is inaugurated and steering his economic recovery plan through Congress will be a key target for his first 100 days. Governments throughout the developed world are looking for significant infrastructure projects to stimulate employment and to stimulate demand. That is the good old Keynesian solution to a recession which has come right back into fashion. Why has there been so little attention given to public infrastructure investments in the information field? Universal broad band seems to be the only plausible candidate so far ($6 Billion is the projected cost of this in the US plan, less than %1 of the total package). Most of the ideas that we read about from Obama, or from think tanks, are that employment will be created by investing in mass transit, or in efficient power transmission, social housing, or neglected infrastructure projects (old bridges and roads etc). Surely we should also be thinking about infrastructure projects for the information sector? But whether the projects are physical or digital, it has to be recognised that there are at least two problems with pump-priming investments. In the blogged comment of the Nobel Laureate Gary Becker:

The activities stimulated by the [Obama] package to a large extent would draw labor and capital away from other productive activities. In addition, the government programs were unlikely to be as well planned as the displaced private uses of these resources. (Becker -- Infrastructure in a Stimulus Package)

So large-scale publicly funded information infrastructure investments that are to be part of a stimulus package must not suck up highly skilled labour which is in short supply, and if they are to be part of a timely intervention they must not involve substantial leadup and planning time. Its a no-no to suggest putting billions into the creation of vast libraries of Open Source software, after all most competent programmers are gainfully employed. As for the requirement of effective planning, it will be much easier to identify a promising project that can be scaled up or replicated than to start something completey de novo. There are such projects in the information field, and rapid scaling up looks most promising for initiatives which involve large amounts of data collection. Data collection is often relatively unskilled, or with skills that can be easily taught. Of course, it is also important that the information being collected is of real use. Here are three suggestions:
  • Open Street Map -- has been making great progress has global ambitions and is run and led by enthusiastic amateurs who appear to be capable of organising relatively large scale social endeavours (mapping parties/conferences). Governments could fund volunteer groups who would generate large amounts of geo-data, perhaps with particular emphasis on ecologically relevant mapping data, and culturally relevant historical data which is neglected by commercial cartographers.
  • Google Book Search has made a very substantial step towards solving the problem of 'Orphan Copyrights' in the USA, but there are nevertheless plenty of gaps in the US data, and the Google collaboration with university libraries is much less advanced in other countries. Although using this data to full-effect reguires the Google engine (or something like it from Open Source or another company), the accumulation of the raw scans is a relatively low-tech business. It needs little more than a careful and well planned logistic pathway and an investment in scanning machines. If governments in Europe and the rest of the developed world were now to invest in large-scale scanning of the published literature, they could reach effective agreements for Open Access or appropriately regulated Approved Access to enormous bodies of printed literature. This would have the additional benefit of putting in the public domain, material which ought to be of general benefit; the Google effort would also be, and seem to be, much less monopolistic if there was a large body of government funded scanning as a counterweight. Much of the technical expertise necessary for scanning the world's out of print literature already exists in libraries and, with the example of Google Book Search in front of them, the world's libraries could be geared up to scan, within a few years, several times the 7 million books already scanned by Google.
  • Ecological audits. As we tackle global climate change it will become increasingly necessary to have better information about animal and plant species and the environmental impacts of climate change on living systems. Amateur efforts like the British Bird Survey are pioneers in this work. If Governments invest now to create better and ongoing records of natural diversity these records will be very useful in the global challenge of moderating and putting a break on climate change.

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