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“Open-washing” – The difference between opening your data and simply making them available

March 10, 2014 in Open Data

(This is the English version of the Danish blog post originally posted on the Open Knowledge Foundation Danish site and translated from Danish by Christian Villum, “Openwashing” – Forskellen mellem åbne data og tilgængelige data)


Last week, the Danish it-magazine Computerworld, in an article entitled “Check-list for digital innovation: These are the things you must know“, emphasised how more and more companies are discovering that giving your users access to your data is a good business strategy. Among other they wrote:

(Translation from Danish) According to Accenture it is becoming clear to many progressive businesses that their data should be treated as any other supply chain: It should flow easily and unhindered through the whole organisation and perhaps even out into the whole eco-system – for instance through fully open API’s.

They then use Google Maps as an example, which firstly isn’t entirely correct, as also pointed out by the Neogeografen, a geodata blogger, who explains how Google Maps isn’t offering raw data, but merely an image of the data. You are not allowed to download and manipulate the data – or run it off your own server.

But secondly I don’t think it’s very appropriate to highlight Google and their Maps project as a golden example of a business that lets its data flow unhindered to the public. It’s true that they are offering some data, but only in a very limited way – and definitely not as open data – and thereby not as progressively as the article suggests.

Surely it’s hard to accuse Google of not being progressive in general. The article states how Google Maps’ data are used by over 800,000 apps and businesses across the globe. So yes, Google has opened its silo a little bit, but only in a very controlled and limited way, which leaves these 800,000 businesses dependent on the continual flow of data from Google and thereby not allowing them to control the very commodities they’re basing their business on. This particular way of releasing data brings me to the problem that we’re facing: Knowing the difference between making data available and making them open.

Open data is characterized by not only being available, but being both legally open (released under an open license that allows full and free reuse conditioned at most to giving credit to it’s source and under same license) and technically available in bulk and in machine readable formats – contrary to the case of Google Maps. It may be that their data are available, but they’re not open. This – among other reasons – is why the global community around the 100% open alternative Open Street Map is growing rapidly and an increasing number of businesses choose to base their services on this open initiative instead.

But why is it important that data are open and not just available? Open data strengthens the society and builds a shared resource, where all users, citizens and businesses are enriched and empowered, not just the data collectors and publishers. “But why would businesses spend money on collecting data and then give them away?” you ask. Opening your data and making a profit are not mutually exclusive. Doing a quick Google search reveals many businesses that both offer open data and drives a business on them – and I believe these are the ones that should be highlighted as particularly progressive in articles such as the one from Computerworld.

One example is the British company OpenCorporates, which offer their growing repository of corporate register data as open data, and thereby cleverly positions themselves as a go-to resource in that field. This approach strengthens their opportunity to offer consultancy services, data analysis and other custom services for both businesses and the public sector. Other businesses are welcome to use the data, even for competitive use or to create other services, but only under the same data license – and thereby providing a derivative resource useful for OpenCorporates. Therein lies the real innovation and sustainability – effectively removing the silos and creating value for society, not just the involved businesses. Open data creates growth and innovation in our society – while Google’s way of offering data probably mostly creates growth for…Google.

We are seeing a rising trend of what can be termed “open-washing” (inspired by “greenwashing“) – meaning data publishers that are claiming their data is open, even when it’s not – but rather just available under limiting terms. If we – at this critical time in the formative period of the data driven society – aren’t critically aware of the difference, we’ll end up putting our vital data streams in siloed infrastructure built and owned by international corporations. But also to give our praise and support to the wrong kind of unsustainable technological development.

To learn more about open data visit the Open Definition and this introduction to the topic by the the Open Knowledge Foundation. To voice your opinion join the mailing list for Open Knowledge Foundation.

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