Whose Data is it Anyway?

Is public data really public?
3.9.2008
Words by Hjálmar Gíslason
Government institutions and other public organisations gather a lot of data. Some of them – like the Statistics Office – have it as their main purpose, others as a part of their function, and yet others almost as a by-product of their day-to-day operations.

    In this case I’m mainly talking about structured data, i.e. statistics, databases, indexed registries and the like – in short, anything that could logically be represented in table format. This includes a variety of data, ranging from the federal budget and population statistics to dictionary words, weather observations and geographical coordinates of street addresses – to name just a few examples.

    Within these public data collections lies tremendous value. The data that has been collected for taxpayers’ money for decades, or in a few cases even centuries (like population statistics), is a treasure trove of economical and social value. Yet, the state of public data is such that only a fraction of this value is being realised.

    The reason is that accessing this data is often very hard. First of all it’s often hard to even find out what exists, as the sources are scattered and there is no central registry for existing data sets. Many agencies don’t even publish information on the data that they have.

    More worrying is that access to these data sets is made difficult by a number of restrictions, some accidental, others due to lack of funding to make them more accessible and some of these restrictions are even deliberate. These restrictions include license fees, proprietary or inadequate formats and unjustified legal complications.

    I’d like to argue that any data gathered by a government organisation should be made openly accessible online. Open access means absence of all legal, technical and discriminating restrictions on the use or redistribution of data. A formal definition of Open Access can be found at www.opendefinition.org

    The only exception to this rule should be when other interests – most importantly privacy issues – warrant access limitations.

    There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, we (the taxpayers) have already paid for it, so it’s only logical that we can use the product we bought in any way we please. If gathering the relevant data and selling it can be a profitable business on its own, it should be done in the private sector, not by the government. Secondly, it gives the public insight into the work done by our organisations in a similar way as Freedom of Information laws have done – mainly through media access to public sector documents and other information.

    The most important argument, however, is that open access really pays off. Opening access and thereby getting the data in the hands of businesses, scientists, students and creative individuals will spur innovation and release value far beyond anything that a government organisation can ever think of or would ever spend their limited resources on.

    Some of these might be silly online games with little monetary value but yet highly entertaining. Others might be new scientific discoveries made when data from apparently unrelated data sources is mixed. And yet others might be rich visualizations that give new insights on some of the fundamental workings of society, showing where there’s need for attention and room for improvement.

    A recent study on the state of matters with Public Sector data in the UK concluded that the lack of Open Access is costing the nation about 1 billion pounds annually in lost opportunities and lack of competition in various areas.  Per capita, a billion pounds in the UK equals about 750 million ISK for Iceland and that’s without adjusting for Iceland’s higher GDP and arguably some fixed gains per nation.

    Surely a huge opportunity for something that requires only a thoughtful policy change and a little budget adjustment to enable the institutions to make the needed changes and continue their great job of gathering valuable data. 

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