What is open data?

I’ve spent the past few months researching open data in my spare time and I thought I’d share what I learned about all things open, because for someone who is not that technical, it took me a far amount of time to learn all of this. Open data is a lot of things and not everyone agrees which parts make up its definition, so I’ll explore some related themes as well. Before I start in on what it is, check out Nick’s post on why you should care. David Eaves has written quite extensively on open government, start here.

I kept thinking the answer would be technical, so the answers I found in the beginning were technical. In a technical sense, open data is most closely linked to open standards to displaying data on the web or for applications. An internationally recognized standard has been documented by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), for example, their work defining a Resource Description Framework (RDF).

It took me a while to figure out that open could, but might not, be built using open source technology. And although not all open source software is, it could be free as in gratis, as implied by the statement “Free beer” or “as in freedom” the truists, like Richard Stallman’s followers, may add.

Many open data supportors believe the argument is, at it’s core, ideological.  The free/libre movement equates open data with prioritizing the public interest by providing access to information. And to do so requires a shift in thinking about the way we licence and release data.

« Choisir la liberté qu’offrent les licences libres, c’est choisir de mettre en avant les intérêts du grand public.» Jean-Luc Henry, creator of Ekopedia, states (link added by me).

Politicians and civil servants around the globe have heard the public’s cry to make Public Sector Information (PSI) available in machine-readible, re-usable formats. UK and US leaders were elected on platforms built on promises of increased transparency. In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office has been set up to promote access to official information and to help the public understand the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). In Australia, a report released recently called Gov2.0 Getting on with It recommends setting up a similar office to implement the recommendations therein, including Recommendation 6 – Make Public Sector Information open, accessible and reusable.

In Canada, municipal representatives have been amongst the first to begin freeing their data. City councils in Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and Ottawa have passed resolutions for increased dissemination of data to the public, in accessible formats. At the Federal level, there hasn’t been a declaration at the highest level yet, but some people have taken the initiative to start working on it (sorry – this link will only work inside the federal government firewall).

That means public officials are now in the position to free their data, but they might not yet know how to do so. Datalibre.ca is a Canadian site dedicated to open data and open government with numerous examples from someone who understands the importance and the implication of freeing data from antiquated systems. The W3C has also recently drafted Guidelines for Publishing Open Government Data.

Despite best efforts, government can’t move fast enough. Luckily there are non-profit group’s like Sunlight Foundation in the US and here in Canada, Visible Government. These organizations are helping raise money and organizing projects to pool the wisdom of the crowd.

In the spirit of Wikinomics, many volunteer projects have attempted to capitalize on the desire of its citizens to contribute to worthwhile projects. Wikipedia and Craigslist are oft-cited examples of crowdsourcing. New though it may be to government, techies have been doing it for years, creating tools like Mozilla‘s pervasive browser Firefox, and various alternatives to expensive and propriatary operating systems and software, like the popular Linux distros. Crowdsourcing has even been used by the government to reduce expenses and deliver value to the public via the web. There are a number of examples of the social and economic benefits of releasing Public Sector Information in chapter 5 of the Aussie’s report referenced above. Whether it be due to pride of work, philanthropy, social status or to contibute to something greater than oneself, volunteers contribute hundreds of thousands of hours to causes they feel benefit the public good.

One of the neat things about the various paths in the open movement is the new business models it’s allowed to flurish.  Social entreprises are popping up all over the place, and many can credit the democratization of modes of production for making it a viable option for entrepreneurship. Whether it be offering services and support for open source technology like OpenConcept.ca or the hundreds of small businesses using freely available social media tools to communicate and market themselves online.

Not all believers in one kind of open are necessarily believers in the other. Many definitions of open do seem to go hand-in-hand but being a supporter of one doesn’t necessarily imply another.

Here are some of my fave examples of open data in practice:

And that concludes my journey thus far on the trail of all things open.

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About Laura

As a Business Analyst working for the Canadian federal government in Web usability, I have the opportunity to be a part of a growing movement of professionals implementing user-centered design principles.
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