What’s the point of open data?

I’ve been puzzling for a while how the open data community can help the many great groups that have been fighting for transparency of key money flows for the past decade and more. I think one answer may be that open data helps us go beyond simply making information available. If done well, it can help us make it accessible and relevant to people, which has been the holy grail for transparency advocates for a long time.

The transparency community has focused too much on just getting information out there (making information available). But what’s the point of having information available if it’s not accessible? What’s the use of public reports that are only nominally ‘public’ because they languish in filing cabinets or ‘PDF deserts’ hidden within an obscure website?

If we can get this information more accessible, we can then work to increase participation and help people use it. This for me is what open data people are talking about when they talk about open formats. Machine readability and open formats matter because they are tools to increase access. I’ve seen too many techies talk about ‘open formats’ and activists’ eyes glaze over. But I think we’re both talking about the same thing we hold dear: improving access to vital data for all.

Likewise, it’s the connections between the datasets that are powerful and interesting. You may not care so much to know where most people under 15 years old live in your country, but if you’re told that those that live close to a nuclear waste disposal site happen to have the highest cancer rates, then it becomes seriously relevant. Same as above, techies often talk about technical data standards and get quizzical/skeptical – at best – looks in exchange. But technical data standards are the fuel that allows policy wonks to compare datasets, which creates relevant data. Connecting the dots makes it policy relevant – without data, you can’t make policy.

[availability of data] => [accessibility of data] => [comparability of data]

[availability of data] => [open formats] => [data standards]

Follow the Money groups do amazing work: extractives’ transparency advocates campaigning for vital releases of information on oil, gas, mining revenues into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Groups looking at curbing illicit flows of funds out of desperately poor countries via shell companies and phantom firms. Activists who scrutinize budgets, everything from big ticket national budget allocations, all the way down to very local issues like your local school spending on basic reading materials. And many more.

Together, these groups share one big thing in common – they are all seeking to follow the money. In other words, they are all trying to understand how money either gets in to government coffers, or how it fails to get there, and then how and whether it is spent for the good of the many, rather than the few lining their pockets.

To succeed, we all need data that’s not only public (e.g. public registries of beneficial ownership) but also accessible (in open formats) and comparable to other money flows.

Let’s work together to make it happen.

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6 thoughts on “What’s the point of open data?

  1. Thanks for your post, Martin, very interesting. I don’t disagree with any of it, but I do have one point to make.

    It’s this: I find it worrying that the point still needs making that the techies and the activists need to be joined up, and that open data is only really valuable if its accessible, relevant and used. Shouldn’t that be foundational?

    • Hi,
      Thank you for your comment. I 100% it is foundational, but have found time and again that we (meaning folks who work on open data) tend to assume a level of knowledge and understanding on the part of the activist community about the benefits of open data that currently does not exist. Conversely, I am not 100% sure the open data folks are currently speaking about the benefits of open data in such a way that these become apparent to activists. Hence my attempt in a way to translate what I see as some of the benefits in a language that may appeal to (and comes from) the less techie community (e.g. enabling access etc).

  2. You are right in your end goal – the key of course – and the power of collaboration means that once these pdf documents (etc) are out there, people can collaborate around them to upgrade to better structured formats and add semantic meaning to them.

    So, the process is (1) get the data open and out there in ANY format (2) create communities of interest to improve the quality, format and accessibility of this data and (3) get people who understand the data (and related data) to link them together.

    In short, it is key to *get the data out there* in whatever format. Then we can start working with it.

  3. Pingback: Open Data Round Up: 27/09/13 | Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute

  4. Pingback: Towards ecologies of usable open data? | the engine room

  5. Martin I couldn’t agree more with you specifically on the point that ‘what’s the point of having information available if it’s not accessible?’ To me it seems that there are copious open data workshops but still a low percentage of accessible data.

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