A Funder Seeks Grease for the Wheels of Data Exchange and Analysis

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a big funder of science research and STEM education, but another of its goals is to improve how we access and exchange digital information. A recent grant seeks to remove some of the friction that resists the effective use of big data. 

We’ve regularly covered the boom in private funding for data science, and one of the most interesting roles philanthropy plays involves facilitating better exchange of information. 

Related: The Data Science Philanthropy Craze

As the crowdsourced and sensor-based collection of data has exploded, researchers, governments and industry are struggling with putting it to good use. The open data movement, for example, seeks to liberate information from barriers like paywalls and copyright, but there are also certain logistics that keep data from being useful to the masses of smart people. 

An interesting recent grant from the Sloan Foundation seeks to smooth out some of those logistics in support of “frictionless data.” 

Sloan, which also recently announced its storied fellowships for 2016, gave $700,000 to Open Knowledge International for a program to help researchers overcome some of the common challenges faced when putting data sets to use. 

“Analyzing and working with data is a significant (and growing) source of pain for researchers of all types,” Sloan Program Director Josh Greenberg said with the announcement. 

Civic agencies and researchers worldwide want to share, find, or use data sets of all kinds. But right now, doing so is a huge hassle. Collections of information exist all over the web in all kinds formats, and don’t always slot easily into common analysis programs like Excel, Python, or R. 

Related: Six Funders Working to Set Science Free

The problem is not just that unportable data is a pain. It actually deters people from sharing and collaborating, leaving potentially useful numbers collecting dust in digital drawers. 

So the Frictionless Data Initiative is a project to get more users to present and exchange data sets in easy-to-use, standardized packages of information that are easy to find and plug into those common analysis tools. The metaphor they use is that if data were cooking ingredients, you’d currently have to travel to the farm to collect eggs from the hens and cure the bacon yourself. Data advocates want it packaged and displayed on a shelf. 

Open data is an attractive target for philanthropy, because if those involved can execute projects like this, it could transform notions about who can use available information, and change the norms for sharing well beyond the scope of the initial grant. It's all about connecting to the crowd and unlocking opportunities beyond any single study or institution. 

Related: How Sloan’s Data Science Program is Trying to Make Sense of it All