The recent case of two students at Yale, who used university data to build a web site that allowed students to plan their schedules while comparing class evaluations and teacher ratings for the past three semesters. shows that unintended uses of data can have a profound impact on organizations, both in the private and in public sector. In this particular case it does not look like the University made course data available as open data, and there was some data scraping work that the students’ application had to perform to provide the intended functionalities.
However the growing availability of open data as well as the ability of people to exchange their own data via social networks is definitely challenging whomever owns and provides data for specific constituencies.
The challenge is two-fold. On the one hand different ways of presenting, combining and analyzing open data lead to new customer attitudes, different expectations and behavioral patterns as well as reputation shifts that can be difficult to intercept and influence. On the other hand, customers and other stakeholders post and share data about their own views and experiences with their service providers: customer reviews on web sites as well as customer comments on social media are already a well know major influencer of customer behavior.
However, while commercial enterprises are more used to deal with this form of competition, government organizations and other public sector institutions are having a harder time. There is an assumption that they hold trusted information and that they are the single source of truth when it comes to the data they own and administer. Unfortunately trust is shifting from established organizations to people. While this is happening at different pace in different jurisdictions – mostly related to how much citizens trust their current government as well as government-owned or funded academic institutions and school districts – it is a fact that nit is happening everywhere.
The irony is that most governments are embarking in open data policies and strategies, based on the assumption that data will contribute to economic development in their region. This will certainly happen in the long run, but before that public sector organizations will have to bear the cost of providing open data and of dealing with their unplanned or unintended use, which can and will challenges established policies and processes. It is probably time for not only opening date, but also being open about how to deal with the inevitable change that the use of open data will drive: yet another reason why open government should not be perceived – as it is now – as a separate initiative, but should become the normal course of business, entrenched in everything governments do.