What is pubwan?

Pubwan is a goal yet to be realized, so a more appropriate question would be "what might pubwan be like?" or "what form might it assume"? The goal of pubwan is to expand the public domain's data holdings, particularly when it comes to data that are easily "machine readable"...modeled, digitized, tabulated, audited, indexed and queryable by anyone, using nonproprietary interfaces and algorithms.

The expression "pubwan" was originally coined as an abbreviation for "public WAN", or public wide area network. It reflected a desire to recapture the public spiritedness of the Internet at an earlier time in its history. Further examination of the motives for proposing pubwan led to more speculation about information per se ("pub", or public domain issues) than about information technology (WAN issues).

Pubwan is to database tables as open source is to source code, or as Ward Cunningham's wonderful wiki technology is to text. Pubwan is to supply as market research is to demand. Pubwan seeks to maximize data werehousing while minimizing data whorehousing.

Why pubwan?

Discovery of knowledge in aggregate information is at a fever pitch. Unfortunately, the general public is benefiting from this mostly in indirect ways. It seems that the principals in "data mining" activity are mostly businesses. Government is also becoming a major player, with the increased palatability to the public and its representatives of interagency information sharing, and "intelligence" activities in general. Individuals (wage-earners, consumers) are primarily passive participants, contributing many individual data points (example: point of sale transactions) to databases to which they have no read access.

Because of passivity in the way most people handle databasable information, we may experience a shift in the balance of power between citizen and state We may also experience the economic effects of increased information asymmetry, such as diminishing consumer surplus, price discrimination, resistance to effective comparison shopping, etc. A primary goal of pubwan is keeping such trends in check.

Who can implement pubwan?

The most costly aspect of pubwan implementation will probably be data capture. For data that are not already machine readable, this means:

This is a tedious activity, but a skill within the reach of many if not most. Other necessary activities include:

Again, the skill set for these activities is not especially rare. Pubwan should present far more widespread opportunities for significant contribution than more "technical" parts of the open systems movement, such as the writing of public domain software.

How can pubwan be implemented?

People must be persuaded to donate time, effort, bandwidth and equipment to the project. This will certainly be a challenge, and may turn out to be impossible. Without voluntary contributions, there would be no public domain. All the technologies and activities of pubwan already exist...what is different about the pubwan concept is the release of a (hopefully somewhat "refined") information "product" into the public domain. An important factor affecting the prospects for pubwan is the "opportunity cost" of taking data points of public interest to the public domain rather than the marketplace. Hopefully a large number of people can be persuaded that this opportunity cost is low enough to be thought of as negligible. At first glance, this would appear to be the case. Every minute of every day everyone is feeding data points into private databases for FREE, just by shopping, making phone calls, using public roadways and visiting other places under surveillance, or participating in any of the many types of transactions subject to interagency information sharing. Surely people who are giving it away to market researchers can be persuaded also to give it to a data mining project they actually have a stake in. The catch is that "professional" data capturing is automated to the point where feeding the database is no inconvenience whatsoever. If anything, not doing so is a major inconvenience or even impossibility. It is incumbent on the pubwan movement to develop data capture technologies that are easy, convenient and cheap for anyone to use.

Can pubwan be stopped?

Given the seeming inevitability of the "tragedy of the commons", it probably doesn't have to be. If pubwan participants and the information they contribute somehow reach a critical mass, there will still be viable avenues of attack. For one thing, pubwan is probably illegal. Claims of intellectual property get broader and broader. Policymakers are swallowing it hook, line and sinker. Public opinion seems willing to buy into anything packaged as counterterrorist strategy. Other threats to the pubwan cause include informational vandalism and disinformation strategies of entities the pubwan community might like to "study".

There is also much cause for optimism. The public domain software community has had much success, at least when it comes to developing developer tools. People love a bargain. In the present author's culture (American), bargain hunting, like everything else, seems inseparably bound to one-upmanship. Still, it may be possible to sell many consumers on the idea that combining their research efforts may produce more powerful results. Since "private-sectorism" is the predominant ideology, the privacy aspects of pubwan might also be marketable even to the mainstream element. While an apparent minority, there are many people who are already contributing time and effort to causes borne out of "contrarian" concern for information issues, privacy issues, consumer issues, intellectual property issues and a host of other issues. Many of these people can probably be persuaded that pubwan, if it were to get off the ground, would address some of those issues in a positive way. Sometimes the underdog wins. May pubwan be one such dog.

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