What is “open data”?

Open data is often used by Smart City and Municipal mobile applications.

Open data is the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. The goals of the open data movement are similar to those of other “Open” movements such as open source, open hardware, open content, and open access. 

It is interesting to note that some government data has commercial value, and it may be in the interests of the government to keep the data private and derive value for tax payers.  One example from 2012 saw a city transit company OCTranspo, resist government efforts to force the agency to make bus location data available as part of a City of Ottawa open data initiative on the basis that the information had commercial value (similar to the ad placements on the sides of buses).

A significant open data challenge is that citizen end-users cannot use the data without additional processing (analysis, mobile apps, etc.).  And if everyone has access to the data, no-one may have an incentive to do the processing and investment required to make data useful.  Another challenge is related to errors in processing or representation of the data by third parties, which can inadvertently reflect back on the open data content provider.  

The type of open data provided by governments varies widely in terms of type, quality and frequency of update.  Governments may encounter issues with exposing data which has been derived from licensed private sources or which have the potential to contravene privacy.  Typical categories of open data that is exposed include:

  • Media
  • Education
  • Construction and housing
  • Community
  • Property
  • Events
  • Arts and culture
  • Statistics
  • Fire
  • Public health
  • Public works
  • Permitting
  • Parks and recreation
  • Environmental and conservation
  • Business and economic development
  • Transportation
  • Service requests (311)
  • Public safety
  • Facilities and structures
  • Administration and finance
  • Ethics
  • Geography
  • Other

Open data is made available in a wide range of formats from spreadsheets through to complex API based services.  Developer access to open data may require the developer to register for an account and API access keys.  

Open data may be made available with different terms of use, disclaimers and copyright conditions.   

Open data is usually provided by governments without any level of service guarantee (e.g. uptime/availability, accuracy, response time, peak capacity, usage limits/throttling, problem resolution policy/support, offline maintenance policy/schedule).  The lack of a service guarantee presents inherent issues for any provider who plans to independently invest in, and develop, a commercial product offering that is dependent upon that open data itself.

Some governments have released open data in the hopes of getting “apps for free”, going so far as to fund and run contests to try and encourage community hobbyists to create useful apps.  Some governments have recognized that this is not a viable digital media strategy, since community-created apps have widely varying quality and are often lacking ongoing or reliable support.  Community-created apps are also not bound by government regulations or policies for accessiblity or language – which can compell governments to create and maintain official apps based on the open data.

Open data is usually provided free to users.  However open data itself represents an initial and ongoing cost for governments to provide and maintain – which makes open data’s ongoing availability subject to changes in government priorities and budgets.  In order to cover the ongoing costs to provide open data, it is possible that governments will start to charge open data user-pay fees (similar to other government user-pay fees), either directly or indirectly through a 3rd party.

Many governments have formulated open data policies, for example US Federal Government.