The Internet has ushered us into an era where more people have access to unprecedented volume of information. This access has in turn triggered a seemingly insatiable desire for more information, more quickly and more conveniently. Why? People want access to information to translate into new knowledge After all, knowledge is power.
In knowledge-based economies, knowledge derived from access to information, and not just material assets, becomes the platform for economic power. Information, or more precisely, the appropriation and control of information, has become central to the organisation of society and the economy. In the knowledge-based economy, wealth is created through the economic exploitation of information. This conversion is typically facilitated by technology-based systems, like the Internet.
High quality information translates to improved ability of markets to create economic value. Conversely, lack of access to information makes it difficult businesses to economize market opportunities. Recognition of the economic and social benefits derived when access to information is facilitated, has led to the emergence of the ‘open data’ movement.
Open data is the term used to describe the notion or ideal that certain datasets should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. The underlying philosophy is not new. The goals of the open data movement are similar to those of other ‘Open’ movements such as open source and open content. However, the term ‘open data’ has gained prominence following several high profile government open data initiatives.
Open Government Data
Governments hold a substantial body of information in public trust. From census data and land allocations to crime statistics and taxation revenues from the energy sector, government’s information repositories are filled with valuable data that ought to be accessible to the public. However, the sheer volume of data generated in the day-to-day operations of government is beyond the capacity of public sector resources alone to utilize optimally. This is why there is a growing momentum behind the open government data movement.
If governments publish pubic datasets in open, easy to access formats, people will leverage the datasets to create the applications and services that they want. This natural innovation cycle, fueled by open government data initiatives, is already reaping benefits for countries, cities and communities across the world. This dynamic process also brings new synergies to the relationship between governments, private sector and civil society as partners in national development.
Governments are also using the open data model to clean-up and improve government data. For example, in the UK, the Department of Transport has solicited the public’s help to validate its database of bus stops. Local government agencies in India are using similar crowd-sourcing approaches to collect data on the bridges and culverts in remote municipalities.
Information about revenues, expenditure, education, energy, health, crime, transport and agriculture enables citizens to be better informed. However, the responsibility does not lie with government alone. The ability to create socially and commercially useful applications, products and services depends not just on government’s willingness to release data, but on the capacity of businesses, students, schools, civil society and individuals to effectively use it.
Still, a major challenge to implementing open data lies in organization and culture of government. There are those who prefer to remain as controllers and obstructionists to the release of public data. These self-appointed gatekeepers sometimes forget, or chose to ignore that pubic data is held in trust and ought to be available to the people. Persuading government bodies to publish non-personal public data requires a significant paradigm shift. Stewards of public information must excise themselves of any notion of personal empowerment derived from withholding access to public information. To break these entrenched positions, more people and institutions must demonstrate in tangible ways the benefits that derive from public information placed in the public domain.
For example, by adding in open data to existing e-government programs, government can improve the return on investment in eGovernment. The savings include staff time, reduction in office space for visitors to view data. We are already witnessing examples around the world where those public bodies that hold back are now being outshone by those that adopt the open government data policy. In every case, there is value in recognizing the front runners and encouraging the laggards to join in.
Incentive to Innovate
Key to open data success is apprehension of the broader economic and social benefits the derive when public data is open to scrutiny, analysis and debate. Correct value must be placed on integrity, transparency and accountability. This requires leadership foresight. Several countries and advocacy groups have developed guiding principles to direct open data initiatives. Such guidelines are useful in establishing the philosophical framework that supports practical implementation.
At both the national and organizational level, open data frameworks can be designed to establish the ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ for publishing government data online. Some countries have adopted Creative Commons type licences, or defined open government licences which grant blanket permission to re-use published government data. Such licences provide developers and other potential user groups with the assurance that their downstream use of the data will be free of restriction and encumbrance.
Publishing government datasets online is only the first step. Businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators are the ones to convert raw data into meaningful, valuable services. There is tremendous opportunity for companies in emerging markets to sell value-added services built on open data. But it does not stop there. Businesses can also get a competitive edge and create new market opportunities by making their own data open.
The airline industry is a perfect example of this. After initially fighting services that republished flight schedules and fares, they realised that having flight data on more sites and in more searches meant more business. Now the industry widely recognizes that both the airline companies and their newly empowered customers benefit from more information and more informed choices.
Not surprisingly, the flip side of all of this choice is a new set of challenges for businesses. Key questions must be asked and answered. “What kind of information is relevant to share? What is the cost of going ‘open’ and maintaining ‘open’? What new services can be built on open data? How can open enhance brand reputation? How can ‘open’ improve customer satisfaction?”
To reap the full benefits, owners and potential exploiters of data must be deliberate and diligent in how they answer these questions. Those who do will be able to leverage open data as a powerful strategic tool.
The open data movement is perhaps one of the most significant advances to how public access to public information can be leveraged for the common good. The responsibility for making information available to the public rests squarely on those who hold the information, as opposed to those who demand it.
In an age where knowledge powers innovation and competitiveness, knowledge must be fed by increased access to information. For governments, open data will test the sincerity of pronouncements of transparency, participation and accountability as foundations stones of modern, open government. For businesses, the challenge is to push for more open data and to build new, innovative services. For everyone, open data provides a solid foundation for innovation and tremendous opportunities for technology to be used greater good.
Bevil Wooding is the Founder and Executive Director of BrightPath Foundation, an international non-profit organization providing values-based technology and digital content development training to youth, communities, and governments.
Republished with the permission of BrightPath Foundation. All rights reserved. www.brightpathfoundation.org
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