To turn the open data revolution from idea to reality, we need more evidence

Stefaan Verhulst at apolitical: “The idea that we are living in a data age — one characterised by unprecedented amounts of information with unprecedented potential — has  become mainstream. We regularly read “data is the new oil,” or “data is the most valuable commodity in the global economy.”

Doubtlessly, there is truth in these statements. But a major, often unacknowledged problem is how much data remains inaccessible, hidden in siloes and behind walls.

For close to a decade, the technology and public interest community has pushed the idea of open data. At its core, open data represents a new paradigm of information and information access.

Rooted in notions of an information commons — developed by scholars like Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom — and borrowing from the language of open source, open data begins from the premise that data collected from the public, often using public funds or publicly funded infrastructure, should also belong to the public — or at least, be made broadly accessible to those pursuing public-interest goals.

The open data movement has reached significant milestones in its short history. An ever-increasing number of governments across both developed and developing economies have released large datasets for the public’s benefit….

Similarly, a growing number of private companies have “Data Collaboratives” leveraging their data — with various degrees of limitations — to serve the public interest.

Despite such initiatives, many open data projects (and data collaboratives) remain fledgling. The field has trouble scaling projects beyond initial pilots. In addition, many potential stakeholders — private sector and government “owners” of data, as well as public beneficiaries — remain sceptical of open data’s value. Such limitations need to be overcome if open data and its benefits are to spread. We need hard evidence of its impact.

Ironically, the field is held back by an absence of good data on open data — that is, a lack of reliable empirical evidence that could guide new initiatives.

At the GovLab, a do-tank at New York University, we study the impact of open data. One of our overarching conclusions is that we need a far more solid evidence base to move open data from being a good idea to reality.

What do we know? Several initiatives undertaken at the GovLab offer insight. Our ODImpactwebsite now includes more than 35 detailed case studies of open government data projects. These examples provide powerful evidence not only that open data can work but also about howit works….

We have also launched an Open Data Periodic Table to better understand what conditions predispose an open data project toward success or failure. For example, having a clear problem definition, as well as the capacity and culture to carry out open data projects, are vital. Successful projects also build cross-sector partnerships around open data and its potential uses and establish practices to assess and mitigate risks, and have transparent and responsive governance structures….(More)”.