Open data — ie publicly available and accessible data — has as many benefits as there are potential uses and users. More so, in fact — it’s a perfect example of the network effect, and how each additional node adds exponentially to the power of the whole.
And it benefits us all.
Open data and communities
Members of the public can use open data to empower themselves or build products and services for their community. It ties communities together, as well as bumping the public, private, civil and even diplomatic sectors together.
Open data and business
Entrepreneurs and established businesses can build and expand with it. Influence both their customers and their competitors, and the general state of play.
One just needs to look at the phenomenal success of the open source software movement to see that publicly-available, and without cost, can be the backbone for tremendous productivity and innovation.
[I won’t go too much more into this, having written about it quite extensively in a recent blog post on how open data fuels innovation.]
Open data and government
In government, open data can be used for transparency and accountability.
Of course, it can also be used as a smoke screen, if government just opens the datasets they want to open. But even then, the more open data there is, the more we can see the holes, and demand what’s ours.
Participatory budgeting — where community members decide how to spend part of a public budget — is an important example of the value of open data.
Open data and prioritisation
And yes, I know that opening data can be terrifying. It can also consume resources which, on the face of it, could be better used elsewhere — in answer to which I’d like to point to the far higher costs of OIA and LGOIMA requests which could have been avoided with an open-by-default approach.
The temptation is to ask people “what should we open up, and especially, what should we open up first/prioritise?”.
I don’t believe that’s the right approach, though. We don’t know what’s valuable to us yet, as we don’t know what we need, or how we’ll use it, or mix it with other data, until we actually _do_ so.
By way of analogy, let me point to the internet.
Imagine asking people 10 years ago “what do you want the internet to do? What do you think you’ll be doing with it, and using it for, in a decade? We’ll focus just on that.” We had no idea what it would become. Thank goodness no one locked it down, or focussed too narrowly.
Open data and documentation
And thank goodness they documented stuff.
One of the major issues with a lot of open data currently is that it’s published with a “publish it and they will come’ attitude. Without good metadata. Documentation. The ability to find and interact with it as a non-specialist as well as a specialist.
It’s an issue people are starting to confront, thankfully.
NYC’s open data portal relaunch is a lovely example of how things could, and should, be done.
Another approach which looks very promising is the use of Facebook chatbots to help people find open data, and give examples of what one can do.
Open data and privacy
Having said all this, not all data should be open.
It’s imperative that it’s opened responsibly — privacy is vitally important, and increasingly so these days. The effects of personal data becoming public can be disastrous, at individual, community, national and even international levels. We can (and do) ruin lives when we don’t take privacy seriously.
Open data and GovHack
It’s my huge belief in the transformative power of open data that has attracted me to, and got me involved with, GovHack — New Zealand’s largest open data / open government / civic technology event.
GovHack — a free, national event taking place in 8 NZ cities — and open data generally are all about getting tech and government people to work and build _with_ their communities, not for them.
And it’s a way to show non-technical people that they, too, don’t have to be afraid of interacting with data. Ideally, we want kids and grandmas looking up the data when they have a question, rather than making their decisions based on op eds in the local paper, or from that guy down the local pub.
Come join us! 28–30 July, nationwide.
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aimee is an open data advocate, national co-ordinator for GovHack NZ, and content design/service design/engagement/digital consultant to central and local government.
She loves trail running (when she occasionally has time), dogs, motorbikes, craft beer, single malt, and talking about how to build stronger democracies. She’s always up for a chat :)