So open data is a good thing? Why?

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.

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!

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

9 thoughts on “So open data is a good thing? Why?

  1. Hey Michael,

    A really interesting post – and one I think represents many people’s position in the claim “I am a fan of open data, I just haven’t fully figured out why”.

    In part I think this comes from the fact that openness of data does have some theoretical/intrinsic desirability – from a democratic standpoint at least. One basis for ideas driving that is that differences in power, that result from differences in access to information, are an inequality that threatens the successful development of a democratic society – and so to allow local authorities/public bodies monopoly on control over information when information can, given modern technology, be easily shared is anti-democratic. Another ‘in principle’ argument comes from the idea that publicly funded data should be publicly available.

    However, in principle/theoretical arguments quickly run up against the empirical questions of impact – which is where the evidence base is of course far less developed.

    In this section of my dissertation I tried to set out a theoretical model for thinking about the impacts of open data (at least, in a democratic context), each element of which arises from at least one example of open data re-use.

    Of course, this only captures the potential impacts of re-use again – and doesn’t get to downstream re-users of a data re-use (i.e. what’s the impact of a tool like Schooloscope.com on the people who use it) which does need more work and evaluation – but along with some of the examples scattered through Chapter 4 might be useful?

    Just thinking at the moment about what a potential Open Data Impacts 2 study could look like to gather some of the impact stories more systematically – perhaps worth a chat about sometime as would love to you get your thoughts…

  2. I reject the premise. I don’t think that government providing open data needs any utilitarian justification. It is a good in and of itself, and a requirement for legitimate civil government – without provision of open data, there is a lack of parity between citizen and state. We cannot verify the inferences that government make without the information.

    If my local police force say that they are focussing on crimes of a particular type because statistics show that those crimes affect people in my area more than another type of crime, I should be able to verify all the statistics that have gone into that statement. Providing as much data as possible in both human and machine readable ways means I can do that quicker and easier.

    But the justification for open data isn’t that we are going to get some dull “hey, look, I plotted all the X on a Google Map” mashups. It is justified because it is the right thing to do and is or should be a fundamental part of a Rawls-esque contract between citizen and state.

    • I tend to agree, but I don’t think that’s an excuse not to consider the implications; at the very least because it allows us to acknowledge – even if we don’t act on it – that there may be consequences we haven’t prepared for.

    • Also, I wasn’t actually thinking in terms of the government needing to justify the release of data. My starting point for writing this was that in order to convince other people to publish data we need to be able to demonstrate benefits. They may well not share the view that it’s necessarily a ‘good thing’, and so need to be encouraged to see how fits their own agendas.

  3. This beautifully illustrates something I’m not sure of either. As a bod in local government, I know transparency to be good. But it’s not just about data. It’s about being human, personalisation yada yada yada. But that’s all fluffy hands in the air stuff too, though the Localism Bill seems to be going down this route quite strongly.

    There needs to be a measure. All I seem to deal with at the moment is unquantifiable. Social media and open data.

  4. Hi Michael,

    Really interesting post and something i have been thinking about as you know.

    For me this is an important thing to do in the current climate, as i don’t think that people disagree in principle that open data is a “good thing” but considering that every public authority is looking to make dramatic cuts – demonstrating and proving value will help to prioritise the effort accordingly, however without this, i fear the process of releasing data will be pushed to the bottom of the queue like may other “good initiatives”.

    We need to at least outline benefits in terms of direct benefits for organisation and citizen as well as the consequential benefits for organisation and citizen. My current thinking and i could be wrong here is that justifying open data is similar to justifying investment in infrastructure. No real direct benefits buit provides foundations for other activity. It is this other activity that we need to connect people to as well as any direct benefits we can find.

    I’m now going to spend some time reading Tim’s stuff as i’ve had it bookmarked for a while now.

    Carl

  5. Hi Michael,

    I think this is a really interesting point, and I totally share your view – opening this data up is great but unless it’s being used properly to influence people’s views then

    To that end, I’ve just cleaned up the Data.gov.uk Metadata and sent round to our Policy and Research and Strategy Planning and Performance teams at Newcastle City Council – the idea being that if you can search through relevant datasets to inform decision making, it’s likely to be more effective. Don’t know how many of my colleagues will find it useful though… We’ll wait and see!

  6. Pingback: Balancing innovation with progression with Open Data | Kit England

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