Data.gov takes the 'Mumsy' test

Mom has her own idea for Data.gov mashups

In my last Impressions column, I said that I would run the redesigned Data.gov past my 90-year-old mother to see whether it would pass the “mom” test. So this past weekend when I made a visit to my childhood home, I fired up Data.gov on my brother’s Hewlett-Packard 6080 desktop PC with Mom looking over my shoulder.

We started by looking at an app on the site that maps obesity rates by county, and compared the obesity rate in the county where Mom lives now (Prince George’s County, Maryland) to the rate in Sebastian County in western Arkansas where she grew up. Surprisingly, they were exactly the same—26 percent. Too many busy people eating too much fast food, Mom said.

“You have to smoke a lot of cigarettes to take care of all those Big Macs,” she mused. Mom then posited a data mashup of her own: Map cigarette sales against rates of obesity. The popular theory that cigarette smoking helps you lose weight would then gain credence if areas of high cigarette sales coincided with lower rates of obesity. Of course, these areas would probably have higher cancer rates, but you could map that too.

We were aided in the mom test by a GCN.com reader, Environmental Protection Agency computer scientist Brand Niemann, who was kind enough to e-mail Mom a link to a “build-your-own” Data.gov app, which uses semantic Web technology.

Niemann’s link showed a demo of a White House visitors app, based on public data available at Data.gov. It showed which White House employees received the most visitors—based on a database called “visitees”—as well as data on the most frequent visitors. The demo runs on http://data-gov.tw.rpi.edu, a project run by James Hendler's lab at Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute. It was developed by Hendler's student, Dominic DiFranzo, and a post-doc researcher, Li Ding.

Using pie charts and other visual mapping techniques, the visitor app showed, for example, that federal CIO Vivek Kundra, of whom Mom had never heard, received more than twice as many visitors as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, of whom Mom knows a great deal. Mom is a voracious reader of political magazines.

So did the redesigned Data.gov pass the mom test? Did it seem useful and easy to use?

“If anything, it’s too easy,” Mom said. “Frankie could do all that in his head.” (My oldest brother Frankie is a math whiz.) “He doesn’t need a Web site,” she said. “Frankie doesn’t even need a calculator.”

So yes, Data.gov did indeed pass my mom’s test. Mom is also a grandmother, so you could say it passed the grandma test as well. Truth be told, the word we always used in my family to mean maternal grandmother was “Mumsy,” which came from a line in the 1952 movie “Phone Call from a Stranger.” So I have to report that Data.gov has passed possibly the hardest test of all—the Mumsy test.

 

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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