Governments around the world have been building databases for years, compiling information on a number of subjects and people, not just those who pose a potential threat but your average, everyday citizen as well as regional and local authorities. According to Ideas.ted.com, a growing movement is forcing governments to publish the data they hold as part of an ‘open government data‘ movement, and an increasing number of Americans are taking up the fight. Advocates argue that government data should be made available to the public, because it’s funded by the taxpayer and databases are created to help build better societies.
Opening access to sensitive data is a bold step, but raises a multitude of questions, from who owns it, to should it be released, and the repercussions of what will happen if it’s made public.
Yale Fox, the creator of Rentlogic, a search engine that uses government data to rate landlords and rental properties, says open data is an important decision-making aid that helps us make the right choices.
The term ‘open government data’ means making “information contained in government databases freely available to businesses and people. It has evolved out of the open source movement that makes software source code open and free to modify and distribute,” Fox said.
The first calls to release sensitive data came from scientists who realized the benefits of using research results and statistics from what would otherwise be a closed source. Widespread calls for governments to open access to their data quickly followed. The first major debate on the subject took place in California in 2007, where 30 internet leaders and activists gathered to work out how the government could make data available.
According to TED, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, the late free-knowledge activist Aaron Swartz and open source advocate Tim O’Reilly, were present at the discussion. The group concluded that “government data should be complete, primary, timely, accessible, machine-processable, nondiscriminatory, nonproprietary and license-free.”
“government data should be complete, primary, timely, accessible, machine-processable, nondiscriminatory, nonproprietary and license-free”
In 2009, President Obama became the first President to open government data by issuing a memo on transparency and open government, which led to the creation of data.gov. The website “improves public access to certain machine-readable datasets generated by the executive branch of the federal government”, and led to data being accessible by everyday citizens. This database is now home to more than 180,000 sets of data which are deemed as ‘open’.
According to the global open index data, this freedom of information movement is not only evident in the United States but in more than 50 countries throughout the world, all calling for open government data. It’s mainly being used by medical teams to improve healthcare, by opening access to improve research and so that patients can have a better experience within the healthcare industry.
In 2014, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services launched Open Payments, a website that allows the public to search as to whether doctors have a financial relationship with any medical organizations which might influence their decision-making.
While, the non-profit Sunlight Foundation tracks influence on US government and politics. Its Influence Explorer website gives the public real-time access to campaign finance reports of all federal candidates running for office. Open Secrets also provides a database that compiles “total lobbying spending and lets users easily click through data broken down by year, industries, lobbying firms and top spenders”, making it easier for the public to keep tabs on public representatives.
Finally, Fox’s own company Rentlogic curates and integrates multiple data sources, providing the public with building inspections, public complaints and court records, so they can make an informed decision about landlords before signing a property lease.
According to the Pew charitable trusts, technological advances have made it easier to share, analyze and organize government data, and enable the public to get their hands on it relatively quickly, but it doesn’t address the legal implications. Although there is legal protection for more sensitive data, the lines can be blurred when it comes to accessing any type of data, and the laws are always changing in this regard.
Opening government data is a win win for all. It encourages transparency, and ensures that government agencies, healthcare providers, educators and organizations can share the information they hold to encourage data-driven decision-making, improve services and become more efficient. What’s more, the positive benefits it provides to society cannot be measured.