Openness about what the government does and how it spends the public resources, is absolutely crucial to the proper functioning of an open and democratic society. Understanding and examination of government’s activities is only possible when it’s known what these activities are: when the public knows about the budgets and spending, when it knows about the plans and their implementation on all government levels, from local to national and international.
Access to such data has been possible through information legislation (such as Freedom of Information Acts / FOIAs) when proper processing of such data is only possible when it’s published in machine-readable formats, processable by computers (e.g. imagine the difference between processing a table with a few thousand rows printed on paper versus a having a file importable to Microsoft Excel where it can be searched, filtered, and processed).
But availability of machine-readable formats isn’t enough: according to the Open Definition, “A piece of data or content is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and/or share-alike.” In other words, data needs to be freely available and re-usable.
Additionally, there should be a permissive license attached. Having access to a file about government spending under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) simply won’t cut it. That kind of data isn’t open data, even when it’s machine readable and available in a digital form.
Open Data is way more than just financial information. The government and various publicly funded organizations produce vast amounts of other data, which could be used in novel ways and bring economic benefit, if it only was freely available. If the government created something for some primary purpose (e.g., mapping information or public transportation information), there could be new and sometimes even unexpected positive new uses. This is the clue of Re-use of Data (information).
The line of thinking is this: if the public has already paid for the creation of the data (by paying the taxes, thus enabling the government and public organizations to fulfil their roles), so then it should be freely available. Of course, there are limitations: releasing some data may not be desirable for the society (e.g. identities in the database of ID cards: releasing of them could enable massive identity fraud). While it’s sometimes challenging to see all implications, the philosophy should be to release all data unless it’s somehow protected or sensitive. Notice that we’re not saying “all useful data”: the reason is that some data may not be perceived as particularly useful by their “owner” but may be extremely useful for some individuals nevertheless (more on this later in the examples).
The astute readers may have noticed that the Open Definition doesn’t speak specifically about governments or public bodies. And this is indeed true: Open Data is much bigger than just the public sector. Commercial organizations, non-profit universities, as well as the entire non-government sector or even individuals can become not just consumers, but also publishers of Open Data. There are data catalogues specifically for the non-profit sector and other entities outside of the government, they are easy to find on the Internet. The COMSODE project wants to make Open Data useful to businesses primarily as consumers, but we encourage them to also publish data for the use by others.
In other words, Open Data is NOT a “special category” (or “different kind”) of data – it could be ANY data that is distributed under a permissive open license. A computer file containing data could “magically” become Open Data simply by properly licensing it under a permissive license (such as Creative Commons Attribution). As long as it’s “free to use, re-use and redistribute” (with no other strings attached, as we saw above), it is Open Data. By having the license attached, this data file has been given the attribute “openness”.
COMSODE Deliverable 5.3 (from which this blog post text has been adapted) focuses on the public sector, and argues that Open Data is an integral part of the Open Government. It should be also pointed out, however, that Open Government includes more than Open Data: in the Slovak Republic, Open Education is also one of the main topics discussed in Open Government activities (making educational resources open, providing open access to scientific publications). In the future, Open Source software may become another hot issue. The rationale is the same in all these areas: since the public financed the creation of the resources (data, educational materials, or software), it should be able to re-use them in new and even unexpected ways.
This article is part of the Blog post Series: The Bigger Picture of Open Data. All articles from this set would be added gradually in coming weeks and months and accessible at: http://www.comsode.eu/index.php/2014/09/blog-post-series-the-bigger-picture-of-open-data/
Jan Gondol, PhD., graduated from the Comenius University (Slovakia) in Library and Information Science. He currently works on the COMSODE project at the Ministry of Interior of the Slovak Republic. More information: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jangondol