The Third Wave of Open Data: Connecting the Past, Present, and Future of Re-Using Data to Advance Societal Goals

By Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew J. Zahuranec, Andrew Young, Matt Gee, Susan Ariel Aaronson, and Ania Calderon

This blog was originally published by the Open Data Policy Lab, a collaboration between The GovLab and Microsoft which supports decision-makers at the local, state and national levels as they accelerate the responsible re-use and opening of data for the benefit of society and the equitable spread of economic opportunity.

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Photo by Unsplash/Nathan Hill-Haimes is licensed under CC0

Our world faces many challenges ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to the threat of climate change to growing economic inequality. Faced with these serious and persistent challenges, many policymakers have turned to data. Through open datasets, both high-ranking officials and the public can improve their ability to make decisions. They can become better aware of their situation, understand cause and effect, improve their predictive capabilities, and better assess the impact of policies.

In July, The Open Data Policy Lab launched the Summer of Open Data. A three-month initiative undertaken in collaboration with the Digital Trade & Data Governance Hub, Open Data Institute, the Open Data Charter, and BrightHive, the Summer of Open Data brought together data experts to make the open data movement more collaborative, responsible, and purpose-driven. Over the course of ten panels, we heard from data professionals in government agencies, international bodies, and private companies talk about the challenges and opportunities they see everyday.

The release of “The Emergence of a Third Wave of Open Data” by Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew J. Zahuranec, Andrew Young, Matt Gee, Susan Ariel Aaronson, and Ania Calederon represents the culmination of those discussions along with several years of hands-on experience. Inspired by conversations throughout the Summer of Open Data, the paper identifies the achievements and deficits in current and past approaches to open data and charts a new way forward for the movement that builds on lessons learned. In doing so, the piece sets out an agenda for a new approach: the Third Wave of Open Data.*

The Future of Open Data

The paper begins with a description of earlier waves of open data. Emerging from freedom of information laws adopted over the last half century, the First Wave of Open Data brought about newfound transparency, albeit one only available on request to an audience largely composed of journalists, lawyers, and activists.

The Second Wave of Open Data, seeking to go beyond access to public records and inspired by the open source movement, called upon national governments to make their data open by default. Yet, this approach too had its limitations, leaving many data silos at the subnational level and in the private sector untouched..

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The Third Wave of Open Data seeks to build on earlier successes and take into account lessons learned to help open data realize its transformative potential. Incorporating insights from various data experts, the paper describes the emergence of a Third Wave driven by the following goals:

  1. Publishing with Purpose by matching the supply of data with the demand for it, providing assets that match public interests;
  2. Fostering Partnerships and Data Collaboration by forging relationships with community-based organizations, NGOs, small businesses, local governments, and others who understand how data can be translated into meaningful real-world action;
  3. Advancing Open Data at the Subnational Level by providing resources to cities, municipalities, states, and provinces to address the lack of subnational information in many regions.
  4. Prioritizing Data Responsibility and Data Rights by understanding the risks of using (and not using) data to promote and preserve the public’s general welfare.

Riding the Wave

Achieving these goals will not be an easy task and will require investments and interventions across the data ecosystem. The paper highlights eight actions that decision and policy makers can take to foster more equitable, impactful benefits. They are:

  • Fostering and Distributing Institutional Data Capacity, which can break down silos within organizations and allow data to support decision-making across institutional operations and priorities;
  • Articulating Value and Building an Impact Evidence Base, which can demonstrate the real-world impact of data sharing for policymakers who determine organizational priorities and institutional budgets;
  • Creating New Data Intermediaries, third parties who can lower transaction costs for data efforts by matching data suppliers with organizations demanding data;
  • Establishing Governance Frameworks and Seeking Regulatory Clarity, which can incentivize data reuse and create safeguards that mitigate risks;
  • Creating Technical Infrastructure for Reuse, including privacy-preserving technologies, security technologies, and access-control technologies;
  • Fostering Public Data Competence, which can disrupt power asymmetries and ensure anyone can fully participate in data efforts;
  • Tracking, Monitoring, and Clarifying Decision and Data Provenance, tracking key decision points impacting data’s collection, sharing, analysis, and (re)use; and
  • Creating and Empowering (Chief) Data Stewards, responsible data leaders within organizations empowered to identify opportunities for data sharing and seek new ways of creating public value through cross-sector collaboration.

Future Work

Over the coming months and weeks, the Open Data Policy Lab and its partners will collectively seek to spur the changes needed to realize the Third Wave of Open Data. We will engage with public and private partners on re-using data responsibly. We will also develop tools and resources that practitioners need to make these recommendations a reality.

In the meanwhile, read the full report here. Contact us with any comments or feedback through email at stefaan [at] or andrew [at]

* This piece uses the metaphor of “waves” to capture how open data could build on its previous successes and failures. While this concept is fundamental to the piece, the authors note that, in the time since they began developing this paper, the term “wave” has become synonymous with the increasing surge of COVID-19 cases. Though this paper refers to the pandemic and the need to use data to address it, this similarity in language is unintentional. We extend our sympathies to all those affected by the pandemic and are committed to advance the responsible reuse of data to counteract its worst effects.

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