The Risk of Relying on ‘Data Philanthropy’ to Make Governments’ Data Open

This post is written by and contains the opinions of co-founder of OpenAQ, Chris Hasenkopf.

Recently I came across the term ‘data philanthropy’, defined as “a global movement whereby companies share their data for the public good.” Sounds like a good thing — and it is. But in the context of private sector entities aggregating and making more open multiple governments’ data, data philanthropy is not enough. That’s through no fault of private sector entities; it’s just not usually their core function to ‘donate’ these data, in the most open, free, and transparent format possible over unlimited lengths of time. And, therefore, we shouldn’t expect or rely on them to do so.

While there are many potential government-generated datasets that are, as of yet, unable to be collected and openly shared in global aggregate by governments or other traditional entities, the private sector is often not the ideal answer. Such datasets, when made open by private sector entities, are not always shared with fully open licenses or at fine-grained and transparent enough levels, to make the datasets feasible for building a community of users around them. It’s also the case that these datasets may become less open or disappear entirely over time, depending on the changing commercial interests of the private sector entity that is donating the data.

Take air quality data. Air quality data are generated and shared in real-time by approximately 70 governments all over the world. Yet, in many cases these data are difficult to access after they appear online for a brief period of time, and, in all cases, they appear in disparate forms from one government entity to another. Difficulty accessing the sometimes temporary and always disparate forms of these data is a major impediment for researchers, public sector entities, activists, policy folks, educators, journalists, software developers, companies, etc., in a variety of fields.

Several private sector entities and individuals have worked to wrangle these real-time data into a form they can use to advance their specific purpose, from building an app to writing a paper. Some of these groups go the extra mile and make a portion of their data open and free for others to use. While these acts are commendable, they are not enough to fully advance air inequality work. That’s because these data are not made open at the most granular and basic levels, historically and in real-time, and how the sources of the underlying data are accessed is not made explicitly clear. But it’s unfair to expect these groups to do otherwise; it’s just not their core role.

So who’s role is it to aggregate governments’ real-time data? Individual governments don’t have the purview to aggregate and make openly available other governments’ data. Traditional international organizations or other non-governmental organizations, to date, have not been able to wrangle the technological and social feat of getting countries to share various types of data in real-time in the same format (including air quality).

Global, grassroots groups are in unique positions to open up data that traditional entities cannot.

Here’s why:

  • Such groups aren’t confined to work through the same channels as traditional organizations. If data are shared in some public form, they are able to access them without delay.
  • The emergence of online collaborative software development tools, like GitHub, enable like-minded folks to help build systems that collect, share, and use these open data.
  • The growing popularity of open data and open-source community cultures enable such groups to find those like-minded folks, often through social media.
  • The falling costs of cloud-computing make it cheaper than ever to fetch, store and serve out these data.

These are the reasons why the OpenAQ Community is able to exist to aggregate the world’s real-time government-level air quality data in a fully transparent, open-source way — something no commercial or other traditional entity has done to date.

While data philanthropy by private sector organizations is valuable, it is also increasingly important for traditional organizations to find ways to foster global, grassroots communities, which can open up and use the world’s data in ways not previously possible.

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