NASA has a plan. Not one, in this case, about spaceships and astronauts, but something far more ‘down to earth’: open data. The organisation’s Plan for Increasing Access to the Results of Scientific Research was first published in late 2014, laying out NASA’s commitment to open up its datasets for international reuse. Full implementation of the plan is set to be in place from October 2015.
The plan aims, in NASA’s words, to “ensure public access to publications and digital data sets arising from NASA research, development, and technology programs”.
Done properly, opening up complex data sets for public analysis and reuse can lead to new and exciting discoveries, sometimes by those with nothing more than a keen amateur interest (or perhaps obsession) with the topic.
NASA is fully aware of this potential. It says it wants to support researchers to make new findings based on its data, not just in the US but around the globe. As if to prove the point, NASA’s Data Stories website highlights a number of case studies of people reusing its datasets in original applications, such as a ‘Solar System Simulator’ created by Canadian website developer Martin Vezina.
NASA also knows it needs to show commitment to scientific integrity and the accuracy of its research data and wants to encourage others to do the same. So by publishing its own datasets, NASA’s team are setting a benchmark for researchers hoping to grab a slice of the organisation’s annual research investment – a whopping US$3 billion. A condition of funding those research contracts, outlined in the 2014 document, is that researchers must develop their own data management plans describing how they will provide access to their scientific data in digital format. One small step for open data, one giant leap for new scientific discovery?
“This plan will ‘ensure public access to publications and digital data sets arising from NASA research, development, and technology programs’.”
How public data is being reused: The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes
The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) is the main source of data for the scientific study of the social attitudes, beliefs and opinions of the nation.
It measures how those attitudes change over time as well as how they compare with other societies, which helps researchers better understand how Australians think and feel about their lives. Similar surveys are run in other countries, meaning data from AuSSA also allows us to compare Australia with countries all over the world.
Access to the AuSSA data has allowed independent researchers to explore changes in social attitudes in Australia over time. For example, Andrew Norton (now at the Grattan Institute in Melbourne) has analysed AuSSA to examine changes in attitudes towards same sex relationships between 1984 and 2009, noting the major shifts in favour of same sex relationships during that period.
AuSSA is often used as a reference point for public policy debate. A number of media articles have been based on its findings, discussing topics as diverse as climate change, the welfare state and the kindness of Australians.
Similarly Australian Policy Online includes 18 different papers making use of AuSSA, including papers on perceptions of democracy, population growth, cultural identity and tax policy.
AuSSA datasets can be accessed via its website.
With thanks to Steve McEachern, Director of the Australian Data Archive at Australian National University.
Featured image source (above): NASA.