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First Open Economics International Workshop Recap

The first Open Economics International Workshop gathered 40 academic economists, data publishers and funders of economics research, researchers and practitioners to a two-day event at Emmanuel College in Cambridge, UK. The aim of the workshop was to build an understanding around the value of open data and open tools for the Economics profession and the obstacles to opening up information, as well as the role of greater openness of the academy. This event was organised by the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Law and was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Audio and slides are available at the event’s webpage.

Open Economics Workshop

Setting the Scene

The Setting the Scene session was about giving a bit of context to “Open Economics” in the knowledge society, seeing also examples from outside of the discipline and discussing reproducible research. Rufus Pollock (Open Knowledge Foundation) emphasised that there is necessary change and substantial potential for economics: 1) open “core” economic data outside the academy, 2) open as default for data in the academy, 3) a real growth in citizen economics and outside participation. Daniel Goroff (Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) drew attention to the work of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in emphasising the importance of knowledge and its use for making decisions and data and knowledge as a non-rival, non-excludable public good. Tim Hubbard (Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute) spoke about the potential of large-scale data collection around individuals for improving healthcare and how centralised global repositories work in the field of bioinformatics. Victoria Stodden (Columbia University / RunMyCode) stressed the importance of reproducibility for economic research and as an essential part of scientific methodology and presented the RunMyCode project.

Open Data in Economics

The Open Data in Economics session was chaired by Christian Zimmermann (Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis / RePEc) and was about several projects and ideas from various institutions. The session examined examples of open data in Economics and sought to discover whether these examples are sustainable and can be implemented in other contexts: whether the right incentives exist. Paul David (Stanford University / SIEPR) characterised the open science system as a system which is better than any other in the rapid accumulation of reliable knowledge, whereas the proprietary systems are very good in extracting the rent from the existing knowledge. A balance between these two systems should be established so that they can work within the same organisational system since separately they are distinctly suboptimal. Johannes Kiess (World Bank) underlined that having the data available is often not enough: “It is really important to teach people how to understand these datasets: data journalists, NGOs, citizens, coders, etc.”. The World Bank has implemented projects to incentivise the use of the data and is helping countries to open up their data. For economists, he mentioned, having a valuable dataset to publish on is an important asset, there are therefore not sufficient incentives for sharing.

Eustáquio J. Reis (Institute of Applied Economic Research – Ipea) related his experience on establishing the Ipea statistical database and other projects for historical data series and data digitalisation in Brazil. He shared that the culture of the economics community is not a culture of collaboration where people willingly share or support and encourage data curation. Sven Vlaeminck (ZBW – Leibniz Information Centre for Economics) spoke about the EDaWaX project which conducted a study of the data-availability of economics journals and will establish publication-related data archive for an economics journal in Germany.

Legal, Cultural and other Barriers to Information Sharing in Economics

The session presented different impediments to the disclosure of data in economics from the perspective of two lawyers and two economists. Lionel Bently (University of Cambridge / CIPIL) drew attention to the fact that there is a whole range of different legal mechanism which operate to restrict the dissemination of information, yet on the other hand there is also a range of mechanism which help to make information available. Lionel questioned whether the open data standard would be always the optimal way to produce high quality economic research or whether there is also a place for modulated/intermediate positions where data is available only on conditions, or only in certain part or for certain forms of use. Mireille van Eechoud (Institute for Information Law) described the EU Public Sector Information Directive – the most generic document related to open government data and progress made for opening up information published by the government. Mireille also pointed out that legal norms have only limited value if you don’t have the internalised, cultural attitudes and structures in place that really make more access to information work.

David Newbery (University of Cambridge) presented an example from the electricity markets and insisted that for a good supply of data, informed demand is needed, coming from regulators who are charged to monitor markets, detect abuse, uphold fair competition and defend consumers. John Rust (Georgetown University) said that the government is an important provider of data which is otherwise too costly to collect, yet a number of issues exist including confidentiality, excessive bureaucratic caution and the public finance crisis. There are a lot of opportunities for research also in the private sector where some part of the data can be made available (redacting confidential information) and the public non-profit sector also can have a tremendous role as force to organise markets for the better, set standards and focus of targeted domains.

Current Data Deposits and Releases – Mandating Open Data?

The session was chaired by Daniel Goroff (Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) and brought together funders and publishers to discuss their role in requiring data from economic research to be publicly available and the importance of dissemination for publishing.

Albert Bravo-Biosca (NESTA) emphasised that mandating open data begins much earlier in the process where funders can encourage the collection of particular data by the government which is the basis for research and can also act as an intermediary for the release of open data by the private sector. Open data is interesting but it is even more interesting when it is appropriately linked and combined with other data and the there is a value in examples and case studies for demonstrating benefits. There should be however caution as opening up some data might result in less data being collected.

Toby Green (OECD Publishing) made a point of the different between posting and publishing, where making content available does not always mean that it would be accessible, discoverable, usable and understandable. In his view, the challenge is to build up an audience by putting content where people would find it, which is very costly as proper dissemination is expensive. Nancy Lutz (National Science Foundation) explained the scope and workings of the NSF and the data management plans required from all economists who are applying for funding. Creating and maintaining data infrastructure and compliance with the data management policy might eventually mean that there would be less funding for other economic research.

Trends of Greater Participation and Growing Horizons in Economics

Chris Taggart (OpenCorporates) chaired the session which introduced different ways of participating and using data, different audiences and contributors. He stressed that data is being collected in new ways and by different communities, that access to data can be an enormous privilege and can generate data gravities with very unequal access and power to make use of and to generate more data and sometimes analysis is being done in new and unexpected ways and by unexpected contributors. Michael McDonald (George Mason University) related how the highly politicised process of drawing up district lines in the U.S. (also called Gerrymandering) could be done in a much more transparent way through an open-source re-districting process with meaningful participation allowing for an open conversation about public policy. Michael also underlined the importance of common data formats and told a cautionary tale about a group of academics misusing open data with a political agenda to encourage a storyline that a candidate would win a particular state.

Hans-Peter Brunner (Asian Development Bank) shared a vision about how open data and open analysis can aid in decision-making about investments in infrastructure, connectivity and policy. Simulated models about investments can demonstrate different scenarios according to investment priorities and crowd-sourced ideas. Hans-Peter asked for feedback and input on how to make data and code available. Perry Walker (new economics foundation) spoke about the conversation and that a good conversation has to be designed as it usually doesn’t happen by accident. Rufus Pollock (Open Knowledge Foundation) concluded with examples about citizen economics and the growth of contributions from the wider public, particularly through volunteering computing and volunteer thinking as a way of getting engaged in research.

During two sessions, the workshop participants also worked on Statement on the Open Economics principles will be revised with further input from the community and will be made public on the second Open Economics workshop taking place on 11-12 June in Cambridge, MA.

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