Openness and Data

The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) distinguishes three categories of Openness:

  • Open Access: Open Data must be freely available for download online (see also, Where to Find Open Data below)
  • Open Format: Open Data must be come in file formats that do not require proprietary software to open. Open Data must also be machine-readable (see file formats above)
  • Open License: Data must be released with a license that conforms with open requirements (see Open Licenses below)

Data is open when it can be accessed and put to use. However, just because data can be found online, doesn’t mean that you can copy, repurpose, or publish it without permission. Data, like much of the content on the internet, is only open when its license allows anyone to access, open and use that data.

OKF’s annual Global Open Data index, generated through a crowd-sourced survey, ranks each country’s openness according to how governments actually publish data. In 2015 the index looked at 13 types of datasets and determined openness based on whether data was: 

  • openly licensed
  • machine-readable
  • freely available
  • available in bulk
  • updated regularly
  • available online
  • available digitally
  • publicly available
  • exists/collected (Global Open Index, 2015)

Openness and Government

Governments collect a lot of data about their citizens, their services, and their policies. Often they use this data to understand if they are accomplishing their goals, and to make more informed decisions. When governments allow their citizens access to this data, they not only show citizens the information they use to make and evaluate decisions, but also allow citizens to participate in assessing and criticizing government decisions, proposing their own approaches, and working on data-based technologies. When governments make decision-making processes, expenditures (sometimes including cash-sources and salaries of individual politicians), and gathered data accessible to its citizens, we call this transparency.

Government transparency means opening  public data and making its available to application developers, civil society bodies, or any interested citizen. Public data is data that is generated, stored on, or about, public institutions or matters of public concern. This policy and governance approach aims to allow citizens to take initiative in both criticizing executive actions (for example, by observing spending reports and budgets) as well as stimulating the development of efficiency innovations. Cities like Edmonton use comprehensive open-data-based reporting to track progress on specific policy goals (Citizen Dashboard, 2011). Opening data has been presented as having  the potential to make governments more democratic by increasing citizen’s capacities for participation, as well as the potential for governments to make better decisions.

Transparency and openness in government do not always clearly benefit people or their democracy. Lawrence Lessig, a legal scholar and avid advocate for openness, has worried that having too much information, or information of the wrong types open, could make citizens view the government more cynically, or be lead by that cynicism to interpret data in more damning ways (Lessig, 2009).

Further, geothink scholar Teresa Scassa (2014) points out three distinct types of conflict between conceptions of what is private and what is public concerning Open Data:

  1. In some cases, information which is available on ‘the public record’ is not suitable for Open Data style openness. She argues that while certain information (such as databases listing holders of firearms licenses, or donations to political causes) is available to the public in a ledger or through a Federal Access to Information Request (although other jurisdictions may have their own procedures), typically this is only for a limited number of individuals. Filling out these types of formal requests takes time and effort, and does not allow for the information to be shared widely with the public. The power to map and publicise this information through Open Data, however, raises ethical concerns about exposing people’s information on such a massive scale, especially when that information might be politically contentious.

  2. While governments are generally circumscribed in their use of sensitive data, private organizations, like corporations, operate with little oversight and disclose their use of information through opaque privacy policies. Whenever information passes through private information systems, users and governments lose the ability to ensure that private information is protected.

  3. Open Data could be another step toward the quantification and rationalization of society that goes along with big data and mass surveillance.

Opening Data

Many civil services have data that they currently collect that is only used internally, or that was created many years ago, sometimes before computers! As a result, many have teams working to prepare open data for release. In some cases, the goal is for all new data to be ‘open by default’, unless there are concerns about confidentiality or security (City of Toronto, 2016; Government of Canada, 2015).

Opening data takes work: the process by which data was or is collected determines whether it already adheres to the standards of interoperability (open formats) that governments now try to follow with their datasets. Many datasets are not suitable to release in their current form, and require reworking. Fortunately, civil services are often enthusiastic to open their data to the public– that’s who open data is for!

Get that Data!

If the data sets you would like to use are not readily available through a data catalogue, you can often request them; this is sometimes known as ‘petitioning for release’. Some cities, like Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver, have request forms on their data catalogues, and also accept requests via email or twitter. The province of Ontario has used voting to prioritize the opening of data sets as well. In general, one should not hesitate to contact their governments to have needed data sets released.

You may need to fill in a “Freedom of Information” request or an “Access to Information and Privacy” request to get the information you need. This is a somewhat more involved process, and will be different depending not only on your province or municipality, but on the department that handles the data you need. You should consider:

  1. What information do you need?
  2. Who might have that information?
  3. Have you already contacted those public servants? Submitted a formal request?
  4. Check out Wikipedia’s Freedom of Information in Canada for more resources.