Proponents speak out against warnings of open data’s dark side

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This Saturday, February 21st,  is International Open Data Day, a day devoted to encouraging governments to make public data freely available in machine readable formats under open licenses. Open Data Day will see people in countries around the world hold hackathons to promote the use of open data and encourage governments to adopt open data policies.

Open Data Day comes on the heels of the latest Open Data Barometer, released last month by the World Wide Web Foundation (WWWF). The Open Data Barometer is an annual report that looks at trends in making public data open in countries all over the world, ranking countries on the basis of their “readiness, implementation and impact.” This year’s report found that the United Kingdom leads the world in making its public data open, but also noted that, in general, most governments aren’t making their data open and even most developed countries still have a long way to go.

These efforts to promote open public data, of course, are all made under the assumption that making public data open is a good thing. The basic idea is that making data that the government collects about itself and the public available for anyone to access and use for free can increase transparency, reduce corruption, and generally improve everyone’s lives. As WWWF founder Tim Berners-Lee wrote when commenting on the Open Data Barometer,“In our digital age, opening up raw government data to everyone, free of charge, is a great way to put power in the hands of citizens.”

On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. However, not everyone agrees. Some people caution that open data has a number of downsides, some potentially significant. In addition to privacy concerns, the main arguments made against making public data more open include:

  • Critics of the government can use open data to make a case for cuts in government spending on public services, potentially leading to the privatization of such services and related assets.
  • Private companies and individuals can leverage open data for their own benefit, to the detriment of others.
  • Open data can create a new kind of digital divide, between those who have the ability and skill to use such data and those who don’t, putting the latter at a disadvantage.

I wanted to get a response to these concerns about open data from some of its champions. First, I reached out to the WWWF and received a response by email from Jose Alonso, the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Program Manager. Alonso challenged whether open data opponents had data to support their claims, writing,

“We believe there is no substantial evidence yet that the availability of Open Data leads to the marketisation of public services or public spending cuts.”

Alonso also points out that, when evaluating countries based on their open data policies, the WWWF takes the way in which data are handled into account. “For example,” he wrote, “the Open Data Barometer measures the quality of privacy provisions in laws.”

Next, I spoke with someone who works directly with open public data on a regular basis. Ben Wellington is a professor in the City & Regional Planning program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York and is also the author of the popular blog I Quant NY, in which he uses open data provided by New York City to answer interesting and potentially important questions.

When I asked Wellington about the arguments made against open data, he acknowledged that there are some real concerns, saying, “Certainly there are negative aspects that could come out of a data release…. There are corner cases where that can come back and get you, there’s no doubt. Maybe we need regulation to protect against these types of instances.”

However, he feels that examples opponents often cite are so unusual that they are far outweighed by the positives to be gained from open data. “You don’t want to say there’s one example of something being used that was against the public’s interest and therefore we should just shut down access to everybody. That’s a strange argument to me,” he said. “There’s a lot more innovation and positive things coming out than these corner cases.”

Wellington argued that, while it’s true that some in the private sector may leverage open public data for their own good, it can also work the other way. Making data open, he said, “also allows the government to leverage the private sector to do more and to leverage the public to do more. The more data that gets released, the more feedback government can get. There’s a feedback loop there that’s really valuable.”

Wellington also downplayed the idea of open data causing a greater digital divide between those who have the ability to work with it and those who don’t. “If you have access to a program like Microsoft Excel you can do a lot. The idea that it’s only the very top echelon that can then use this is kind of misguided. I think that that bar is quite low,” he told me. “It’s something to be aware of, but i think the idea that this sort of elite top is kind of misguided.”

These open data advocates, then, acknowledged some of the potential drawbacks of open data, but repeatedly emphasized that the potential upside of making public data open far outweighs the down. As the WWWF’s Alonso wrote to me (the emphases are his):

“Good governance requires that the public can understand the workings of government; influence government by engaging in policy and budgetary processes and service delivery programs; and hold government to account for policies, spending and service delivery performance. Open data is a critical tool for achieving these objectives.”

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