Blog post

What Does It Take to Make Open Data Really Open?

By Andrea Di Maio | May 02, 2012 | 2 Comments

open government data

While I was thinking about this post, I have seen Tom Slee’s one titled “Why the Open Data Movement is a Joke”, which has raised some discussion and understandable outrage in the open government circles.

Tom’s argument starts from underlying an inherent conflict between the Canadian government’s decision to join the Open Government Partnerships (see my earlier post) and some of its behaviors. Then he postulated that

the Open Data Movement is more focused on formats, digitally-accessible data sets, free access to postal codes, and so on than it is focused on actual government transparency around issues that matter. It’s a movement that has had no impact on government accountability

I would argue that he is being a bit unfair to the many who fight for greater data availability as a means to increase transparency and accountability, although he is probably right is saying that sometimes is geared too much about the “religion of open data”. To some extent, this reminds me of old discussions on open source software: everybody would agree with the principles of less vendor lock-in and greater openness in government procurement, but the open source purists would not concede that the right battle to fight was the one on open standards and not necessarily on open source.

Despite its excessively aggressive tone, Tom’s criticism may serve as a a useful wake up calls to those who are heads down on open data initiatives of all sort. Recently I have witnessed a spike of interest in my country too, where consultants and activists are up in arms around open data.

Those who have been reading this blog know that I have been often critical of the open data movement (see here for an example), for several reasons. I do believe it is a very useful and important move but:

  • It needs to be less obsessed with creating new businesses and business models, and more concerned about how it can be used internally, by government themselves
  • It needs to be less obsessed about transparency per se, and more concerned with how it can help solve concrete problems and challenges
  • It needs to be less obsessed with data availability and more concerned with data usability – and not by specialists but by the masses.

In fact, the current imbalance (what I provokingly called “obsessions” above) is such that open data remain the realm of specialists – such as journalists, bloggers, activists, lobbyists – and its value does not get to the people yet.

It is also important to highlight that government certainly is a key provider of open data, but not the only one. Until when we start looking at the broader ecosystem of open data providers, which include several industry sectors (media, retail, financial services and more) as well as citizens and consumers themselves (through social networks), we will keep missing several avenues for value creation. Governments can use other industries’ and communities’ open data as much as those can use governments’.

It is unfortunate, though, that after over four years of open data discussions nothing seems to have changed. As Tom says, unconferences, hackatons, application contests,, keep dominating the debate, and each time somebody dares doubting the accomplishments of open data movements he or she gets accused of being a luddite or an enemy of transparency.

Reality is that open data alone does not make either governments nor the world as a whole as open as we wished to, Is it better to have zillions of raw data sets in an open format that the average citizen has not clue what to do with – and a bunch of businesses and other interest groups packaging that , or fewer data that governments package in a readable and accountable way for everybody to read?

After all, in most of the world governments are democratically elected to represent us, the people. Why should a newspaper, a groups of hacktivists or a private enterprise be any better at giving us access to and understanding of data?

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  • Robert says:

    Why do some assume that the average person could make heads or tails of the data? In the US knowledge and experience counts against you when it comes to government. People running for office boast of their lack of knowledge of anything concerning governing. If the government (with the best of intentions) only provides their interpretation of the data then it is a press release with the government’s spin. Analysis of data is HARD partly because of the subtleties and nuances of the data. So some third parties are needed to fire the extra neurons to provide some analysis.

  • Data by itself is necessary, but not enough, for many practical uses of an intranet or the Web.

    What’s also needed is app knowledge about how to use the data to answer an ever increasing number of questions — such as, “How much could the US save through energy independence?”.

    There’s emerging technology that can leverage social networking for the significant task of acquiring and curating the necessary knowledge — in the form of Executable English.

    Google “Executable English” to find this, or go to .