Open Data

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This page offers a general understanding to the concept of open-data, how open-data emerged and why it is essential for any society.

1. Understanding Open Data

Information is a very important element for any network society. The nature of flow of information and the kind of information flowing within these networks determine the final shape of the society. The flow of information is continuous. It has no end. It keeps on evolving at different stages leading to creation of multiple possibilities. Information plays a very important role in the individual's understanding of what, when, why and how? These respective elements, ultimately help in the inception of ideas which later take a concrete shape within the society. However, for all these processes to function in a dynamic fashion, information has to remain open and transparent. This is where the idea of open data comes in.

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Open-data, basically, denotes the kind of data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone. Data in any form can be considered as open if and only if it fulfills certain pre-conditions such as:

  • Availability and access: Data must be available as a whole. It should also be available in a convenient and modifiable form for easy access.
  • Re-use and redistribution: Data must be provided under terms that permit the reuse and redistribution including the intermixing with other datasets.
  • Universal participation: Everyone must be able to use, re-use and redistribute such a data. There should be no discrimination in terms of access for the individual or a group, irrespective of its background.

In simpler words, any data can be considered to be open if it is interoperable, i.e., it can be be used in diverse and multiple systems which can perform together in an interconnected manner. The data should possess the ability to intermix with other streams of data. When one form of data is able to intermix freely with other datasets, it not only results in the creation of wide arrays of information but also to a great extent complements the aspect of “openness”. From this aspect of openness of data, there emerge countless possibilities of creating ideas which can help a society achieve its developmental goals. As a result, open-data has its relevance within the society.

2. History of Open Data


The idea of “Open-Data” emerged from the concept of open access to scientific data. It was institutionally established with the formation of the World Data Center system, in preparation for the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958. The International Council of Scientific Unions (now the International Council for Science) established several World Data Centers to minimize the risk of data loss and to maximize data accessibility, further recommending in 1955 that data be made available in machine-readable form.

Open-science-data movement existed long before the emergence of the internet. The movement was a pioneer in pushing the needs for fast and ubiquitous networks to allow access to information at any point of time. Since then the idea of open-data has undergone multiple phases of change involving different forms of obtaining and publishing data at a much less time-consuming and expensive rate.

The Human Genome Project was another major initiative that exemplified the power of open-data. It was built upon the so-called Bermuda Principles, stipulating that all human genomic sequence information should be freely available in the public domain in order to encourage research and development and to maximise its benefits to the society. More recent initiatives such as the Structural Genomics Consortium have illustrated that open data approach can also be used effectively in the productive sphere of industrial R&D.

In 2004, the science ministers of all nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which also includes most developed countries of the world, signed a declaration which essentially stated that all publicly funded archive data should be made publicly available. Following a request and an intense discussion with data-producing institutions in member states, the OECD published in 2007 the OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding as a soft-law recommendation. It principally helped in identifying and establishing some key ground rules to ensure proper utilization of open-data and its protection from any kind of exploitation.

In the case of India, the open-data initiative was launched in 2012. It was designed as a platform for single-point access to datasets and apps published by Ministries/Departments/Organisations of the Government of India. The website was launched in October 2012 as a part of the Open Government Initiative, in compliance with the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) of India. The policy envisages proactive dissemination of data by Government Ministries/Departments/Organizations. The platform shares the best features of both India's and US government open-data project.

3. Relevance of Open Data

Open-data is highly relevant to the society. Open-data, especially open government data, is a tremendous resource that still remains largely untapped. In the case of India, the government has just started to embrace the idea of open-data world and this is a particularly significant move given that the quantity and centrality of the data it collects, but also because most of the government data is deemed public data by law, and therefore, it should be made open and available for others to use.

Multiple initiatives of open-data setup across different parts of the world have already begun to show the value that open-data has to offer. There are also many different groups of people and organizations which can benefit from the availability of open-data, including the government itself. At the same time, it is impossible to predict precisely just how and where the value will be created in the future, because it’s in the nature of innovation that most of the developments often come from most unlikely places. However, open-data may help in creating values in terms of:

  • Transparency and democratic control
  • Greater participation
  • Self-empowerment
  • Improved or new private products and services
  • Innovation
  • Improved efficiency and effectiveness of government services
  • Impact measurement of policies

Also in a society, there is a need for diversity of ideas which is only possible through access to wide array of information relevant for the society’s overall development, devoid from any form of discrimination. Open-data would ensure that with access to information, there is development of knowledge which in turn would lead to shaping up of diverse set of ideas. Through access to information, it can help in designing a plan outlay for market enterprises to seize their future opportunities, improve public service delivery by reducing the acts of corruption in different stages of governance and improve effective policy designs and implementations in the fields of education, health-care, sanitation etc. It can also create scope for other players such as non-profit organizations and civil societies to actively participate in the existing issues of the society.

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However, it is very important to understand that not all forms of data that exist in the society can be classified as open-data. There is clear-cut distinction between open and classified data. Any kind of data that may cause personal harm to an individual, group or can be a threat in terms of national security etc. cannot be classified as open-data and should not be encouraged to be open. Any kind of information which is not revealing such details and can be accessed easily without any kind of barriers and can be utilized further through intermix with other forms of information, is very much a type of “Open-Data” that will help in improving the aspects of transparency and accountability within the society.

4. Arguments on Open Data


The debates around open-data are still evolving. Most of the open-data applications designed by the government seek to empower the citizens, provide support to the small businesses and create positive values in a constructive manner. There exist arguments both for and against the idea of open-data, however, the highlight of these arguments generally revolve around the nature of information and its potential uses.

Institutions and groups supporting the idea of open-data provide the following facts as under:

  • Data belongs to the human race. Information is a public necessity and should remain open to the public.
  • Public money was used by the government institution to fund this process of data collection and organization and, therefore, it should be universally available.
  • Facts cannot legally be copyrighted. Access to such facts cannot be discriminated.
  • Sponsors of research fail to receive the full value unless and until the resulting data is made freely available.
  • Restrictions on data re-use can create an anticommons.
  • Data is required for the smooth management of communal human activities and can be an important enabler of socio-economic development (healthcare, education, economic productivity, etc.).
  • Multiple scientific research projects can be accelerated through better access to available data.
  • Underutilized data or unused data can result in creating a situation of “data rot”.

Open-data has also been challenged by different institutions as well. The arguments made against making data easily available and accessible are as under:

  • Government funding may not be used to duplicate or challenge the activities of the private sector. Different governments have to be held accountable for the efficient use of taxpayer’s money, i.e., If the public funds are being used to aggregate the data and if the data is providing commercial benefits to only a small number of users, the users, therefore, should then reimburse governments for the cost of providing the data.
  • By allowing a gate-fee on the access to data, the revenue earned by publishing data permits non-profit organisations to invest its resources in other activities.
  • Privacy concerns may require that access to data is limited to specific users or to subsets of the data.
  • The process of data collection, revision, management and dissemination are typically labour and cost-intensive processes. Therefore, whoever provides these services should receive a fair remuneration for the very services.
  • Quality management of the data is critical for its effective usage in different scientific research based projects. Through charging user fees, the information can be better managed and packaged for utilization.

6. Future Possibilities of Open Data


Open-data can become a key pillar for social and economic prosperity in the future. Open-data will be more than just a product. It will shape into an infrastructure providing access to quality information which is easily accessible and well curated. However, there will be a need for greater collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders to solidify the gains and keep the momentum of open-data going. By 2020, different governments will have realized that it takes more than just the rhetoric to deliver effective and transparent open government services. Currently, what can be seen is that information, available in terms of open government services and data, is mainly supply driven, which in the future will be driven on the basis of citizens' demands. There will also be an added importance placed on mechanisms or intermediaries which make it easier for citizens to interact with open government services. However, different governments will need to work with other organisations and partners to improve the usability of open government interfaces. Many organisations which have started to realize the importance of open-data will begin to channel greater investments in the field of health, education, employment and among many other fields. Others will focus on improving the levels of transparency. With the availability of open-data, multiple opportunities will be created for all kinds of organisations, government agencies and not-for-profits to come up with new ways of addressing society’s problems which may include include predictive healthcare, and planning, etc. However, a key challenge that may exist is the lack of coordination of open-data efforts at various levels of government that would make the integration and comparison of data at global level challenging. Open-data, therefore, will have to be as fluid as possible, so that it can spread seamlessly without geographical and administrative barriers. Also there will be a need for technological advancement in the infrastructure to sustain different open-data efforts in various developing countries.

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