Open data on universities – New fuel for transformation

François van Schalkwyk at University World News: “Accessible, usable and relevant open data on South African universities makes it possible for a wide range of stakeholders to monitor, advise and challenge the transformation of South Africa’s universities from an informed perspective.

Some describe data as the new oil while others suggest it is a new form of capital or compare it to electricity. Either way, there appears to be a groundswell of interest in the potential of data to fuel development.

Whether the proliferation of data is skewing development in favour of globally networked elites or disrupting existing asymmetries of information and power, is the subject of ongoing debate. Certainly, there are those who will claim that open data, from a development perspective, could catalyse disruption and redistribution.

Open data is data that is free to use without restriction. Governments and their agencies, universities and their researchers, non-governmental organisations and their donors, and even corporations, are all potential sources of open data.

Open government data, as a public rather than a private resource, embedded in principles of universal access, participation and transparency, is touted as being able to restore the deteriorating levels of trust between citizens and their governments.

Open data promises to do so by making the decisions and processes of the state more transparent and inclusive, empowering citizens to participate and to hold public institutions to account for the distribution of public services and resources.

Benefits of open data

Open data has other benefits over its more cloistered cousins (data in private networks, big data, etc). By democratising access, open data makes possible the use of data on, for example, health services, crime, the environment, procurement and education by a range of different users, each bringing their own perspective to bear on the data. This can expose bias in the data or may improve the quality of the data by surfacing data errors. Both are important when data is used to shape government policies.

By removing barriers to reusing data such as copyright or licence-fees, tech-savvy entrepreneurs can develop applications to assist the public to make more informed decisions by making available easy-to-understand information on medicine prices, crime hot-spots, air quality, beneficial ownership, school performance, etc. And access to open research data can improve quality and efficiency in science.

Scientists can check and confirm the data on which important discoveries are based if the data is open, and, in some cases, researchers can reuse open data from other studies, saving them the cost and effort of collecting the data themselves.

‘Open washing’

But access alone is not enough for open data to realise its potential. Open data must also be used. And data is used if it holds some value for the user. Governments have been known to publish server rooms full of data that no one is interested in to support claims of transparency and supporting the knowledge economy. That practice is called ‘open washing’. …(More)”