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Open Data Empowers Us to Answer Questions that Matter

This article by Rufus Pollock, Founder and Director of the Open Knowledge Foundation, is cross-posted from “Telefonica Digital Hub” released on 5 December 2013.

Every day we face challenges – from the personal such as the quickest way to get to the work or what we should eat to global ones like climate change and how to sustainably feed and educate seven billion people. Here at the Open Knowledge Foundation we believe that opening up data – and turning that data into insight – can be crucial to addressing these challenges, and building a society in which is everyone – not just the few – are empowered with the knowledge they need to understand and effect change.

Neon sign Open 2005  Photographer User Justinc cc-by-sa

Open data and open knowledge are fundamentally about empowerment, about giving people – citizens, journalists, NGOs, companies and policy-makers – access to the information they need to understand and shape the world around them.

Through openness, we can ensure that technology and data improve science, governance, and society. Without it, we may see the increasing centralisation of knowledge – and therefore power – in the hands of the few, and a huge loss in our potential, individually and collectively, to innovate, understand, and improve the world around us.

Open Data is data that can be freely accessed, used, built upon and shared by anyone, for any purpose. With digital technology – from mobiles to the internet – increasingly everywhere, we’re seeing a data revolution. It’s a revolution both in the amount of data available and in our ability to use, and share, that data. And it’s changing everything we do – from how we travel home from work to how scientists do research, to how government set policy.

Now much of that data is personal, data about you and what you do – what you buy (your loyalty card, your bank statements), where you go (your mobile location or the apps you’ve installed) or who you interact with online (Facebook, Twitter etc). That data should never be “open”, freely accessible to anyone – its your data, and you should control who has access to it and how it is used.

But there’s a lot of data that isn’t personal. Data like the government’s budget, or road maps, or train times, or what’s in that candy bar, or where those jeans were made, or how much carbon dioxide was produced last year … Data like this could and should be open if the governments and corporations who control it can be persuaded to unlock it.

And that’s what we’ve been doing at the Open Knowledge Foundation for the last decade: working to get governments and corporations to unlock their data and make it open.

We’re doing this because of the power of open data to unleash innovation, creativity and insight. It has potential to empower anyone – whether it is an entrepreneur, an activist or a researcher – to get access to information and use it as they see fit. For example, citizens in Ghana using data on mining to ensure they get their fair share of tax revenues to pay for local schools and hospitals, or a startup like Open Healthcare UK using drug prescription data released by the UK government to identify hundreds of millions of pounds of savings for the health services.

It’s key to remember here that real impact doesn’t come directly from open data itself – no one’s life is immediately improved by a new open data initiative or an additional open dataset. Data has to be turned into knowledge, information into insight – and someone has to act on that knowledge.

To do that takes tools and skills – tools for processing, analysing and presenting data, and skills to do that. This is why this is another key area of the Open Knowledge Foundation’s work. With projects like SchoolofData we’re working to teach data skills to those who need them most, and in Open Knowledge Foundation Labs we’re creating lightweight tools to help people use data more easily and effectively.

Finally, it’s about people, the people who use data, and the people who use the insights from that data to drive change. We need to create a culture of “open data makers“, people able and ready to make apps and insights with open data. We need to connect open data with those who have the best questions and the biggest needs – a healthcare worker in Zambia, the London commuter travelling home – and go beyond the data geeks and the tech savvy.

Image “Neon Sign Open” by Justin Cormack, CC-BY

  • Luc Lapointe

    Dear Rufus,

    Always nice to read the various blogs that come out of the “Open Data” movement but I am not so convinced that data itself would eventually generate unbiased knowledge and down the road…better “collective” decision making!

    First of all…data is tainted, political and bias — Who is collecting that data and the reason the data is made public. The second is the “cost of opportunity” which is “…..the value of the best alternative forgone, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources. Assuming the best choice is made, it is the “cost” incurred by not enjoying the benefit that would be had by taking the second best choice available…”

    All this to say that we know that smoking will kill you but lots of people smoke. What drove people to stop smoking is when we implemented “punitive measure” to smoking. Laws that prohibited people to smoke in public places, restaurants, etc…combined with increased taxes…so the opportunity cost became the second options (not smoking).

    Data alone gives you little information or can send the reader on the wrong course which is often political or biased. Here is another example — the producer of Guanabana paid researcher to study the benefit of the fruit…it’s actually 10,000 times more potent than chemotherapy. Another unbiased research showed that eating Guanabana can cause Parkinson Diseases…now that I am informed..what should I do? The situation can be further complicated by access to other foods or not…limited options…go for the “opportunity cost” (being hungry). The reader has little context about the data!!

    The same goes with data collected about government spending or any other set of data for that matter.

    Data is tainted and making data public should come with all the warnings that “reading this information” make cause prejudice… so many other factors ….let’s call them “causalities” for the sake of discussion…influenced the data now made public. We had an interesting formula that we had developed in Canada to explain to governments what were the opportunity cost for them to invest in prevention programs instead of “only” treatment. That information was tainted by who was on the board and the various sets of data we used to make these cost projections. Needless to tell you that governments prefer to invest in ill-care than health care…even though we use the wrong terminology to describe our ill-care system.

    Data can further be complicated by semantic…words that may not correctly describe the “data”. For example, government like to use ‘health care’ (more positive) even though all the money is for a system for people that are “ill” not people that are healthy. Shouldn’t it be called ill-care? and money that is for prevention correctly be ‘health-care”

    Quantitative Data is tainted, political, and biased unless it comes with a full expressed disclosure on who collected the data and the ultimate purpose of that data…it should always be accompanied with qualitative data.

    We have access to data everyday but the decisions we will take is influenced by personal perceptions, economic situation, and religious / political preferences.

    Open Data is an interesting exercise but more efforts should be invested on what is the real value of that data!

    Saludos…Luc Lapointe

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