Understanding Open Data with Joel Gurin

Presentation by Joel Gurin

Joel Gurin recently joined the GovLab as Senior Advisor, and on July 17th, he spoke to the organization about his work on open data and its impacts on individuals, organizations, and society. Joel previously served as Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for two years and then as Senior Consumer Advisor at the FCC through September 2012. In that role, he chaired the White House Task Force on Smart Disclosure, which studied how the government can provide data to help consumers make choices in complex markets.

Joel spoke to the GovLab about open data in the context of current understanding and use, developments in the field, and how open data is influencing individual and organizational behavior. The talk began with Joel offering a broad definition of open data: it includes data that is both intended and available for public use, regardless of its source, as long as it is reusable, available either for free or at low cost, and accessible by the public. In that sense, he takes a view of open data that goes beyond open government data, although he notes that government is still the most important open data source.

Most notable is the level of intentionality embedded in open data: it is “data with a mission,” and is made available so that it can be used for some public purpose. Joel pointed out that this is a marked difference from ‘big data’: while the two terms often have some overlap, big data is often classified or proprietary in nature. Open data is about getting information out to the public, which is based on the idea that information is power. Joel explained that, therefore, the more computable that information is, the more powerful it is.

Joel then went on to describe several trends he has noticed in the open data space, along with some great examples in the field. The concept of liberating governmental data has picked up steam recently with the Open Data Policy unveiled by President Obama in May 2013. This Executive Order dictates that federal agencies must make their data truly open, machine-readable, reusable, timely, and developed in consultation with data users.

With regards to Smart Disclosure and consumer empowerment, good examples in the field include Compare The Market and www.greatschools.org. Investors and companies are also becoming smarter about where to invest and whom to partner with: websites such as Duedil and Capital Cube provide in-depth information based on open data. Another trend is that brands are becoming defined by online reputation, and companies such as PublikDemand and Reputation.com are focused on data from consumer complaints or other sources that can affect a company’s reputation. Open data also has remarkable potential for problem-solving using collaborative intelligence: Joel used the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation as an example to illustrate how open data is being seen as accelerating research. Lastly, the transparency afforded by open data is leading to increasing accountability: for example, I Paid a Bribe is a site in India that uses citizen reporting to uncover corruption.

Openness is one of the key components in the GovLab’s focus on institutional innovation and re-imagining governance structures to make them more effective and legitimate, and it was a pleasure to hear Joel’s insights as a pioneer in the field. We look forward to reading his book, “Open Data Now,” due to be published in January. Joel also blogs about open data at OpenDataNow.com and can be followed on Twitter as @JoelGurin.

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