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Why Open Data?

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Open data, especially open government data, is a tremendous resource that is as yet largely untapped. Many individuals and organisations collect a broad range of different types of data in order to perform their tasks. Government is particularly significant in this respect, both because of the quantity and centrality of the data it collects, but also because most of that government data 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 of how it has been used 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 in the future. The nature of innovation is that developments often comes from unlikely places.

It is already possible to point to a large number of areas where open government data is creating value. Some of these areas include:

  • 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.

In terms of transparency, projects such as the Finnish ‘tax tree’ and British ‘where does my money go’ show how your tax money is being spent by the government. And there’s the example 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, which showed all the Danish public toilets, so that people she knew with bladder problems can now trust themselves to go out more again. In the Netherlands a service, vervuilingsalarm.nl, is available which warns you with a message if the air-quality in your vicinity is going to reach 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 the same parks. Services like ‘mapumental’ in the UK and ‘mapnificent’ in Germany allow you to find places to live, taking into account the duration of your commute to work, housing prices, 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 annually in the EU alone. New products and companies are re-using open data. The Danish husetsweb.dk helps you to find ways of improving the energy efficiency of your home, including financial planning and finding builders who can do the work. It is based on re-using cadastral information and 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 translation algorithms, thus improving its quality of service.

Open data is also of value for government itself. For example, it can increase government efficiency. The Dutch Ministry of Education has published all of their education-related data online for re-use. Since then, the number of questions they receive has dropped, reducing work-load and costs, and the remaining questions are now also easier for civil servants to answer, because it is clear where the relevant data 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 such as the Wikimedia Foundation in order to execute their own tasks more effectively. This not only results in improvements to the quality of their data, but will also ultimately make the department smaller.

While there are numerous instances of the ways in which open data is already creating both social and economic value, we don’t yet know what new things will become possible. New combinations of data can create new knowledge and insights, which can lead to whole new fields of application. We have seen this in the past, for example when Dr. Snow discovered the relationship between drinking water pollution and cholera in London 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 hugely improved the general health of the population. We are likely to see such developments happening again as unexpected insights flow from the combination of different open data sets.

This untapped potential can be unleashed if we turn public government data into open data. This will only happen, however, if it is really open, i.e. if there are no restrictions (legal, financial or technological) to its 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, public data needs to be open data.