Privacy concerns spread amidst UA approval of Open Data Initiative

If the initiative is approved by Penn, job listing data and real-time locations of Penn Transit buses will become more accessible

· February 6, 2012, 10:01 pm   ·  Updated February 8, 2012, 10:33 pm

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Though the Open Data Initiative has secured support from the Undergraduate Assembly, there are still privacy concerns.

On Sunday afternoon, the UA passed a resolution to support the initiative. Matthew Rosenberg, an Engineering junior and the Engineering representative on the UA, called the initiative “a revolution that we had the opportunity to be part of.”

“It was one of those things that seemed to be completely positive,” he added. The UA vote was almost unanimous with only one person abstaining.

The initiative is a proposal made by the Student Technology Advisory Board with the intention of increasing the amount of publicly accessible data. If the initiative is approved by the University, data such as job listings and real-time locations of Penn Transit buses will become more accessible to developers who wish to develop applications with the data.

However, while allowing more material for application developers and promoting transparency, open data also brings many concerns about privacy.

Rob Nelson, director of education in the Provost Office, said “each dataset has particular issues associated with it” and not everything will go public due to privacy concerns.

Since different offices at Penn manage their own data, each office itself will determine whether to or not open up their dataset, according to Nelson.

Because of this, he believes that the opening of data will occur in small steps, rather than at the “macro level.” Open data is not just an idea that has appeared out of nowhere. “Developers will really drive this. They will say I want ‘x’ data and then they’ll try to get the University to open up ‘x’ data.”

The initiative “encapsulates a lot of things that are happening around campus and encourages additional action,” Nelson said.

Students at Carnegie Mellon University are also encouraging transparency on campus.

Student developers at the University’s ScottyLabs are trying to get their university to open up its Application Programming Interfaces in order to have an easier time developing applications when using university information.

Amy Quispe, the co-founder and director of ScottyLabs and a junior in the School of Computer Science, said the university is worried about “releasing information that could get certain student groups in trouble.” She cited a “canonical” example of a LGBT student being outed to his or her parents because the university had released his or her club affiliations.

In addition to CMU, Princeton and Oxford universities have also opened their data to student developers.

Michael Chan, a Wharton and College junior and head of STAB, quelled the privacy concerns. “Laws, like Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and general common sense dictate that we shouldn’t make such data accessible,” he wrote in an email.

Nelson added that sensitive information such as grades would probably not be made public.

PennApps Labs is another supporter of the initiative. It co-signed the initiative along with STAB.

Open data “is exactly where we’ve been heading together as a school,” Nelson said.

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