Nowadays, the data required for modern governance is so broad and complex that there are bodies that gather, store and interpret this wealth of data at every level of governance. There is so much data that it is overwhelming and it is often not put to the best use possible.
But the story of governance, at least in the past few hundred years, is also that of a move towards democratization and transparency. Data in general, but government produced data in particular is and should be on a path towards democratization. This means that data, simply put, should be open.
But why should data be open? Clearly there are costs associated with the gathering and production of data so there should also be benefits. Research and knowledge are valuable in themselves so there should be direct benefits gained from them. One of the easiest examples is cadastral survey data. The government needs to know how many buildings are in an area but people need to be employed by the land ordnance survey office in order for this to happen.
So if some other entity, say a private citizen or a NGO needs cadastral data, the Government recuperates its expenditure by selling this data onwards. This is a common model in many government and for-profit entities, including scientific journals and survey companies. Yet while this model may be acceptable in for-profit companies it is increasingly unacceptable in governance. Government is an abstraction born out of the pooling of citizen wealth and sovereignty and in a transparent and democratic government all data, within reason, should belong to everyone as it is paid by everyone.
The benefits of open-data are many and well known but, specifically, in government open data often leads to good governance. The obvious example is that of expenditures. Citizens deserve to know how their money is being spent in order to better hold their representatives accountable. Open data can lead to day to day quality of life improvements — faster transit times, less pollution, less crime, more transparency in government contracts and so on.
Even more importantly the open data from government-sponsored research projects can lead to advancements in healthcare or even scientific breakthroughs. This is true at all levels of governance. Open data can promote smart spending in small communities where money has to be carefully spent, making sure that any investment comes with an adequate return or it can help fix the problems of big communities with lots of money but few solutions.
Most importantly open data is not just a set of principles but a philosophy that fosters cooperation, smart solutions and the disruption of old ideas and canons. It is a philosophy of gradual change and evidence-based policy making that takes the best principles from the tech sector and weds them to the best principles of development. And it is a philosophy we need. In a world rapidly urbanising, plagued by climate change where the population is expected to reach 10 billion over the next 30 years we need tech-informed, smart solutions to the challenges of government, both those faced now and those we can predict through open data.
We can all do our part, help improve our communities and act in emergency situations. We can save the world, and we can only do this through the power of open data.