We’re encouraging people to open up their data and helping them to do so easily and effectively. But can we show why it’s such a good thing to let other people re-use that data?
I wrote recently about how we possibly don’t do ourselves any favours by presenting open data initially as extra work, and complicated extra work at that. I hope to follow it up with a more practical post giving tips on how to present the concept to people who might be reticent, in which I would encourage them to steer clear of tricky issues and to start by concentrating simply on getting their audience fired up about the idea.
To do that I need examples of how it is reaping real benefits for people. The trouble is, where are those examples? How do we know if open data is actually benefiting society?
There are tons of examples of what people are making with data (tools to help people interact with services, visualisations to add layers of meaning to civic information, etc) but not a lot to show how those things are actually affecting people and society.
Sure, we can point to ways that the data is being used and conclude, quite reasonably, that consequent consumers must be getting something out of it; but how do we know that, and how do we know their lives are better (define ‘better’!) – rather than simply different – than if they didn’t have that information? How do we know society is benefiting from open data? What benchmarks are being used to measure that, and who agreed them anyway?
For all we know those tools and visualisations might simply be enabling people to make selfish decisions; or leaving them with the presumption that they have qualitative information on a topic, when in fact they’re being exposed to just one interpretation – or, at least, just one presentation – of the underlying data. Even when those tools are interactive, allowing the user to add context by comparing one set of data (crime statistics in their town, for example) with another (poverty levels, perhaps), they are still only doing so within certain parameters.
The problem with context, in my opinion, is that you can never have enough of it; one problem with people, in my opinion, is that they’re usually content with not bothering to look for context. The argument that people might misuse or misunderstand what they’re presented with is stronger than often we like to admit.
Enthusiasts for open data tell us that we should just get into the habit of publishing it, because being open and transparent is better than not being so: the other stuff is important but it’s irrelevant if the data isn’t actually there. I nearly agree with that, but it troubles me a little when people support open data with the argument that being open and transparent is good, as if that’s a universal truth.
Of course, it may be that the push for open data is driving change subtly. While visiting my sister’s family recently my Mum tripped over a fence-post in a children’s playground. My niece and several other people had done the same thing, with bruises and grazes to show for it. I’ve seen the posts, they are quite dangerous: they stick out from the fence at an angle of about 30 degrees, projecting two or three feet into the playground itself. My mother was incensed by this and wrote to Kingston Council. She had a swift reply, which detailed how they had responded: they’d sent an inspector to the playground, agreed the posts could be hazardous and were considering what to do about them. I’ve heard other positive stories like that recently, which seem to me to be on the increase. That might suggest that the drive for openness and transparency – including campaigns for open data – is having a positive effect at the local civic level. Sadly, though, that is pure conjecture.
I am a fan of open data, I just haven’t fully figured out why; I need to know how the re-use of data is benefiting society, then I’ll be happy. So, examples please!