Yesterday I read that both Statistics Canada and the British government have announced the publication of new opn data sets The latter in particular seems to have created quite some interest, as data sets include personal health records, transport data, house prices and the weather
As usual the blogosphere has been buzzing with enthusiasm and anticipation, but – at least at this stage – my first reaction has been to yawn. Something I shared in a response to a tweet from open government advocate and reporter Alex Howard, receiving his usual slap on my wrist in return.
Once again, I have no problem with the principle behind open data, and I am personally convinced that those exciting scenarios that many have depicted, with entirely new services and businesses stemming from the clever reuse and mash up of this data, will become reality at some point in time.
My problem is with timing and emphasis.
There are formidable problems that Europe and most of the rest of the world have to deal with, such as dramatic budget cuts, unsustainable public welfare, massive youth unemployment, risk (and often reality) of social unrest, the gloomy picture of countries defaulting on their debt and pulling with them most of the financial services industry.
I would argue that there should be an attempt, if not a real impetus, to orient open data initiatives to help with one or more of these problems. This does require focus, planning, execution.
It requires people who understand problems as well as organizational and regulatory constraints, people who are most likely to be working in or for government. Sure, application developers and non-experts can offer new ways of looking at data and spotting partners and solutions that nobody else has been looking for: but their efforts need to be coordinated, if not directed, by government folks who will be accountable for those solutions.
Unfortunately governments keep buying into the “government-as-a-platform” metaphor, assuming that once all data is published in machine readable form, problems will almost sort themselves out. Reality is that, except for few notable exceptions, not much has happened so far.
Open data should not be an excuse for governments to outsource or abdicate their responsibility, nor can they believe that the good will and enthusiasm of people can deliver results unless there is focus and coordination.
It is time for governments to wake up and raise to the challenge. It is time they move from believing that appointing a scientist or a well-respected media-savvy executive from the private sector is enough, to planning for training and rewarding government executives and staff for actually using open data, rather than bean-counting how many data set they have on a web site.
It is key that open data initiatives do not turn into pissing contests between governments around the world. Also because the wind of financial crisis and recession is already blowing against them, and the outcome may be embarrassing, to say the least.