The most common argument in favor of open data is that it enhances transparency, and while the link may not always be causal, it is certainly true that both tend to go hand-in-hand. But there is another, more expansive perspective on open government data: that it is part of an effort to build public infrastructure.
Does making a shapefile available with all Montevideo’s traffic lights make Montevideo’s government more transparent? We don’t think so. But one of our duties as civil servants is building the city infrastructure. And we should understand that data is mainly infrastructure. People do things on it, as they do things on roads, bridges or parks. For money, for amusement, for philanthropy, there are myriads of uses for infrastructure: we should not try to determine or even guess which those uses are. We must just provide the infrastructure and ensure it will be available. Open data should be seen as a component of an effort to build a public digital infrastructure, where people could, within the law, do whatever they want. Exactly as they do with roads.
When you see open data in this light, several decisions become easier. Should we ask people for identification to give them our data? Answer: do you ask them for an identification to use the street? No, you don’t – then no, you shouldn’t. Why should we use open, non proprietary standards for publishing data? For the same reason you do not build a street where only certain car brands can pass. What happens if there are problems with my data, which causes problems for the users? Well, you will be liable, if the law decides that … but, would you avoid demands for accidents caused by pavement problems by not building streets? Of course you are responsible for your data: you are paid to create it, as you are paid for building bridges. Every question about open data we can imagine has already been answered for traditional infrastructure.
But of course the infrastructure required to enable people to create an information society goes beyond data. We will give you four examples.
The most direct infrastructure component is hardware and communications. The Uruguayan government recognises this, and is planning to have each home connected with fibre by then end of 2015, with 1 Gb traffic for free for everybody with a phone line. Meanwhile since 2007, every public school child gets an OLPC laptop and internet connection. This programme should be understood as being primarily about infrastructure: education encompasses much more than laptops, but infrastructure enables the development of new education paths.
Secondly, services. Sometimes it’s better to provide services than to provide data. Besides publishing cartography data, in Montevideo we provide WMS and WFS services to retrieve a map just using a URL. Services, as data, should be open: no registration, no access limit. Open services allow developers to use not only government data, but also government computation power, and, of course, government knowledge: the knowledge needed to, say, estimate the arrival time of a bus.
Thirdly, sometimes services are not enough, and we have to develop complete software components to enable public servants to do their work. Sometimes these software components should also be part of the public digital infrastructure. The people of Brazil are very clear on this: in 2007 they developed the Portal do Software Publico Brasileiro, where applications developed by or for the government are publicly available. Of course, this is not a new concept: its general version is called open source software. We believe that within this framework of public infrastructure, the discussion between open source and privative software makes no sense. Nobody would let a company be the owner of a street. If is public, it should be open.
Finally, there is knowledge. We, as the government, must tell the people what we are doing, and how we are doing it. Our knowledge should be open. We have the duty to publish our knowledge and to let others use it, so that we can participate actively in communities, propose changes, and act as an innovation factor in every task we face. Because we are paid for that: for building knowledge infrastructure.
We do not think government should let others do its work: on the contrary, we want a strong government, building the blocks of infrastructure to achieve its tasks, and making this infrastructure available to people to do whatever they want, within the law.
Exactly the same thing they do with streets.
Guillermo is Head of Development in the IT department of the city of Montevideo. He is also part of the Institute of Computer Science at the Universidad de la República, where he works on Natural Language Processing.