“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
This memorable quote by the great English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton defines his research philosophy. Newton believed that scientific progress can happen only if research by individual intellectuals is pooled together in a common pot for everyone to access and take it further.
The same idea was voiced in a seminal thesis by American sociologist Robert King Merton, when he said that the results from research studies must be accessible and available to all. Newton and Merton, then, were some of the earliest proponents of the movement called "Open Access."
The basis for open access, open data, is an important aspect of scientific advancement. The World Data Center system, created to provide people with access to data collected from the observational programs of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), was probably the first example of an open access system.
The subsequent opening of the internet for commercial use gave a renewed impetus to this goal of making data freely available for everyone without restrictions like copyrights and patents.
Criticism of the open data concept
While a strong case has existed for the use of open data, to empower common citizens, there have also been criticisms and concerns about this same concept.
Skeptics often wonder, for example, just how open data reaches the average citizen. The majority of internet users may not even be able to use the “machine-readable” open datasets governments and organizations provide. So, how is the average individual empowered? This is a valid concern.
The open data community should keep in mind that it may be curtailing the average person's right to information when it obtains open data from governments and other organizations and that data remains incomprehensible.
Open data and public empowerment
It is logical, then, to put open data into a context that is easily usable and understood by laypeople. And, accordingly, there have been efforts to provide open data in formats that people can use and make sense of. Those formats are the path to true empowerment.
Technological pioneers of open data are using information from government and civic society organizations’ open-data initiatives to create user-friendly tools. These tools can help people by alerting them to imminent emergencies, like an impending flood-like situation, or by delivering comprehensive demographic data on important social topics.
Open data is also helping smart cities plan their urban infrastructure. For example, Amsterdam created a hi-tech solution for the city’s parking problems by marrying technology with open data sourced from the municipal government. Amsterdam is also leading the way when it comes to using open data to limit public and corporate budgets, as well as bring about efficient cooperation in the fields of travel and energy.
Similar efforts are afoot here in the United States. In an effort to build confidence in the government and business, the U.S. government launched Data.gov in 2009. This initiative had a huge impact. Apart from high-value, machine-readable datasets now available from the federal government, several semi-governmental organizations have created specialized tools that utilize this open data.
Today, patients can compare the safety and the cost of medical treatments at various hospitals and nursing homes and make informed decisions. Students, parents and counselors can make better college choices. Further, data on demography, incomes and schools is helping communities promote fair housing.
Open data and the individual
The federal government is not the only provider helping people access data and records: Numerous private websites have also taken up the mantle of helping people make informed choices through easy-to-use tools utilizing open data. Take Arivify, for instance. It provides easy access to property records sourced from public property offices across the country.
Accessing individual records isn’t always easy. However, Arivify compiles all this data and segregates it state by state and provides access to real estate agents, property owners and investors, among others.
Then there are global organizations like the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank and Organisation for Cooperation and Economic Development, which have opened up their data sets for public use. Even corporate data is available through portals like OpenCorporates and OpenOil. If you want to dig further, OpenDataSoft provides a comprehensive list of more than 2,600 open data portals around the world.
Open data is no longer looked upon as a mind-numbing array of figures on a spreadsheet; instead, today, it's helping to create tools that make sense to the average user.
The public-private efforts to bring data to the end-user are a great way to lead the march toward true empowerment. Only a society that is transparent in every way can achieve true progress. Open data and its correct utilization is the foundation needed for building such a transparent and progressive society.