Is Open Data A Boon Or A Bane?
from the keeping-things-in-perspective dept
Techdirt often writes about the benefits of openness and sharing. One area that is increasingly coming to the fore is open data -- for example, for some time both the US and UK have had major projects aimed at opening up the stores of data held by their respective governments, and other countries are rapidly joining the club. But amidst all the enthusiasm for such projects, it's easy to get swept away, and to accept the idea of open data uncritically. That's what makes this fascinating blog post entitled "Seeing Like a Geek" from Tom Slee so valuable, because he calls out what he sees as a serious problem with open data initiatives:
The point of this post is to draw attention to this open government data doppelgänger -- the shadow of commercial interests that follow civic hackers wherever they go; the new markets that spring up inevitably from the ruins of the old -- and to its dangers. I am suspicious of this doppelgänger: more so than most open data proponents, who tend to use the language of entrepreneurship and innovation when discussing companies who work with open data, and who contrast the new firms with the aging business models they seek to replace, and they often present commercial use as a complement to civic use.
His post gives some examples, such as the rich and powerful property developers using newly-digitized records to evict the poor from lands the latter had lived on for many years. More generally, he sees open data projects undermining traditional knowledge held in the memories of local people. Ultimately, he fears that open data may simply empower the empowered.
It's an important post, because it challenges many of the unacknowledged assumptions about open data and its worth. But as David Eaves points out in an equally insightful post written in response, Slee concentrates unduly on the negative aspects of open data, and omits mention of the problems of closed data:
There is, I would like to note, however no discussion about the cost of closed data -- or the powerful interests that mirror the open data free market doppelgänger's - that like to keep it that way. No acknowledgement for the enormous inequalities embedded in the status quo where government data is controlled by government agents -- and more often than not -- sold to those who can pay for it. I have no doubt that open data will create new winners and losers -- but let's not pretend like the status quo doesn't support many winners and create big losers either. Our starting point is not neutral.
The key point here is not that open data can't be abused by the unscrupulous, but that it is still better overall than what we have had until now, which is an entire system based on the exploitation of information asymmetries. Slee's concern that open data enthusiasts can be somewhat starry-eyed at times is a valid one, but Eaves is surely right that we must look at the broader context in order to understand the true value of openness and sharing.