Why Open Data?

Open data, especially open government data, are a tremendous resource that is largely untapped. Many different individuals and organisations collect a broad range of different types of data to be able to perform their tasks. Government is particularly significant in this regard, both because of the quantity and centrality of the data they collect, but also because of all that government data, most is public data by law, and therefore could be made open and made available for others to use. Why is that of interest?

There are many areas where we can expect open data to be of value, and where examples already exist. There are also many different groups of people and organisations who can benefit from the availability of open data, including government itself. At the same time it is impossible to predict precisely how and where value will be created. The nature of innovation and new things is that it will come from unlikely places.

It is already possible to point to a large number of areas where open government data is creating value, and there are likely more. Some of these areas are:

  • Transparency and democratic control
  • Participation
  • Self-empowerment
  • Improved or new private products and services
  • Innovation
  • Improved efficiency of government services
  • Improved effectiveness of government services
  • Impact measurement of policies
  • New knowledge from combined data sources and patterns in large data volumes

Examples exist for most of these areas.

For transparency there are projects such as the Finnish tax tree and British Where Does my Money Go? that show how your tax money is being spend by government. Or there’s the case of how open data saved Canada $3.2 billion in charity tax fraud. Also various websites, such as the Danish folketsting.dk, track activity in parliament and the law making processes, so you can see what exactly is happening, and which parliamentarians are involved.

Open government data can also help you to make better decisions in your own life, or enable you to be more active in society. A woman in Denmark built findtoilet.dk with all Danish public toilets so people she knew with bladder problems now trust themselves to go out more again. In the Netherlands, vervuilingsalarm.nl warns you with a message if the air quality in your vicinity is reaching a self-defined threshold tomorrow. In New York you can easily find out where you can walk your dog, as well as find other people who use those parks. Services like mapumental in the UK and mapnificent in Germany allow you to find places you can live, given a certain commute time to your work place, prices of housing, and how beautiful an area is. All these examples use open government data.

Economically open data is of great importance as well. Several studies have estimated the economic value of open data at several tens of billions of Euros yearly in the EU alone. New products and companies are re-using open data. The Danish husetsweb.dk helps you find ways to improve the energy efficiency of your home, including financial planning and finding builders who can do the work. It is based on re-using catastral information, information about government subsidies as well as the local trade register. Google Translate uses the enormous volume of EU documents, that appear in all European languages, to train the translating algorithms, thus improving its quality of service.

Also for government itself open data is of value. Efficiency can be increased for instance. The Dutch Ministry of Education has published all of their education related data on-line for re-use. Since then the number of questions they receive has dropped reducing work load and costs, but the remaining questions now are easier to answer for civil servants as well, because it is clear where the relevant data to answer those questions can be found. Open data is also making government more effective, which ultimately also reduces costs. The Dutch department for cultural heritage is actively releasing their data and collaborating with amateur historical societies and groups like the Wikimedia Foundation to execute their own tasks more effectively. This not only results in improvements of the quality of their data, but will also make the department smaller.

While there are numerous instances where open data is already creating both social and economical value in very diverse ways, at the same time we don’t know yet what new things will become possible. New combinations of data can create new knowledge and insights, that lead to whole new fields of application. We have seen that in the past, such as when Dr. Snow in London discovered the relationship between drinking water pollution and cholera in the 19th century, by combining data about cholera deaths with the location of water wells. This led to the building of London’s sewage systems, and meant a huge improvement in general health of the population. We will likely see that as well when unexpected insights flow from combining open data sets.

This untapped potential can be unleashed if we turn public government data into open data. Only, however, if it is really open, so if there are no restrictions (legal, financial or technological) to the re-use by others. Every restriction will exclude people from re-using the public data, and make it harder to find valuable ways of doing that. For the potential to be realized, the public data needs to be open data.