Monday, 23 February 2015

On open data

The idea of "open data" is not new but it seems to be gaining popularity, recently, especially for data generated by using public or publicly funded means.
'Molecular energy at work'
by Let Ideas Compete
under a CC license

"Open data", as a term is subject to different definitions and, thus, is applied in different ways. The most basic, clear-cut definition available dictates that "Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose", although it is also possible to allow for mandatory attribution to the source.

At the legal level, things are a bit more complicated. The key problem of how to handle copyright in a way to reasonably achieve the intended objective of open data is not very hard to address. However, adding various restrictions to that, which in some cases is needed, makes it tricky. Taking into account that intellectual property legislation varies widely from country to country things become even trickier. To that end, the people at GNU and the Free Software Foundation have compiled a list of different free and non-free licenses commonly used for software and documentation projects. Further advice can be found, amongst others, on the World Bank.

Putting legal issues aside, open data, if used correctly, can help bring added value to societies. I understand that this is part of the typical pro-open data rhetoric but, for a moment, let's think of a couple of examples, besides transparency and accountability that seem to be well established already:

(a) A lot of money is invested, world-wide, on research and technological development activities. In cases where grants are provided on a competitive basis, applicants are commonly requested to demonstrate the relevance of their proposal to the current challenges and the scientific state-of-the-art. The latter normally takes a good literature review, while the former often relies on policy documents and some handful of studies that might be available on line. Even worse, during project implementation, project partners normally don't get access to additional data. Having relevant open data readily available would greatly help the research and innovation system in producing more relevant research proposals and better, closer-to-needs solutions.

(b) Competitiveness is considered to be a key for growth. But does this automatically translate to growth relevant to the needs of a society? Proving open data could stimulate growth-through-competitiveness around major needs. Further to that, it could facilitate adoption of best practices elsewhere, making it easier to compare cases and effects, hence, to identify solutions.

Is all data suitable for becoming open data? Clearly no. That wouldn't even apply to all data obtained through publicly funded means. Some data cannot not (and should not) become open because that would compromise national security or personal security, would limit or cancel a person's right to privacy, would possibly contradict court decisions and orders, etc. That means that it would be hard to apply a single approach to all kinds of data regarding their "openness".  It is still possible, though, to apply the open data policy on step at a time, or - better - a dataset at a time, keeping an eye of the effects, of course. In the future, it may be possible to define and implement a single, concise open data policy - at least for government data or data generated via public resources.

By the way, the open data call is finding top level support - at different intensities, perhaps - by entities such as the EU (, the US (, Japan (, etc. More importantly, the Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, now has 65 member countries and publishes reports on those.

The video that follows has been made by the Open Government Partnership in promotion of Open Government.

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