Being Open About Data

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Open & Shut

Working out which source is most useful is tricky when dozens have the same information. Registers that were built for administrative purposes only have not yet been redesigned into databases that can be sorted, analysed and matched with other data. Some sets are not kept up-to-date in the portals—a common problem for government-spending records, for example. Gavin Starks of the Open Data Institute, a non-profit, points to a shortage of data-handling skills among officials, activists and journalists.

It is not just that only a few people possess specialist skills, he says; many lack the ability to interpret figures. Mr Starks cites the example of British MPs, most of whom could not solve a simple maths test involving two probabilities. The thorniest problem for open data now is privacy.

But a privacy scandal can cause a backlash against all open data. Open-data activists have joined forces with bureaucrats and entrepreneurs to sort out all these problems.

OPEN Government Data Act | Data Coalition

Their solutions are starting to work, and growing amounts of data are being put to good use. At first, officials rushed to put data online without worrying too much about its quality. That is changing. Advocates such as Open Knowledge list the most valuable datasets and the features that make data truly open—such as an open licence or a machine-readable format. Many governments use these lists when they decide which data to release. Matchmaking events that connect data custodians with analysts, coders and other geeks are becoming more common. Data-users learn which are the best sources; officials learn how to make them useful.

They were held in over cities on February 21st, which enthusiasts have declared International Open Data Day. Investors are flocking to such events in growing numbers, increasing the chances that bright ideas turn into successful businesses. Some events simply ask civic-minded geeks for their best ideas. Others focus on specific problems. This year American government agencies ran competitions for ideas to help health-care providers tackle obesity, generate visuals of nutrient pollution of water sources and make it easy to explore millions of 19th-century newspaper pages, among others.

They are publishing handbooks, organising training and coming up with tools that generate easy-to-understand visual data summaries. BudgIT, a startup that distils unwieldy budget documents into simple infographics, is training Nigerian politicians to use its online tools to track the completion of projects included in state budgets.

Such efforts are sometimes funded by non-profits and the development agencies of rich countries.

Keeping secrets

The privacy problem is trickier. Some researchers and activists argue that almost all data can be cleverly scrambled to make them anonymous. Others doubt that this can ever be foolproof: as more data are published, it will become easier to mix and match from different sources to figure out who is who. In the end, reckons Mr Gurin, it will come down to a judgment about how much privacy is worth risking for the sake of better medical treatments, for example. It is impossible to predict where the open-data revolution will lead. Back then, no one could have guessed that this would, one day, help drivers find their way, singles find love and distraught pet-owners find their runaway companions.

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Of Sturgeon and Ships

Current edition. Audio edition. Economist Films. The Economist apps. More up icon. Open government data Out of the box The open-data revolution has not lived up to expectations. Open Regulations. Right to Information. Consider Action As leaders, these members may consider playing a peer-support role by sharing their experiences and innovations with others in OGP, if they are not already doing so. No data. Open Data Health. Implement for Results As leaders, these members may consider playing a peer-support role by sharing their experiences and innovations with others in OGP, if they are not already doing so.

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