Book Review: Open Data Now

February 18, 2014

Open Data Now is the first complete book on Open Data. For that fact alone author Joel Gurin has offered a tremendous resource on this fast-growing field. He takes readers on a guided tour of all the manic energy transforming Open Data in nearly every sector. Startups and innovators emerge from each page to tell the story of an economy and society transformed. 

Open Data is public data with a mission, aiming at nothing less than reshaping the way we do business and run government. Everyone can access, read, and re-use the data thanks to proper formatting and licenses. More often than not, governments provide Open Data. Passive and private data, by contrast, are the fount of Big Data. 

Open Data has become increasingly useful—in time, it will be definitively profitable. What’s exciting is to speculate on what the future holds for Open Data. Gurin sees unlimited potential. Those who understand Open Data and use it well will be better off in the years ahead. 

Gurin’s snapshot of Open Data's innovators also serve as an effective guidebook. To tell their stories he draws on his work at New York University’s Governance Lab, an organization studying 500 leading companies that use government Open Data, as well as his years at the FCC and the White House. 

A few of his examples rise to the top:

  • One type of Open Data, what Gurin calls “smart disclosure,” combines public, private, and personal information to help users make informed decisions. Opower, for instance, compares your energy usage to that of your neighbors to help you be more energy efficient. 
  • Open Data is particularly useful for harnessing the crowd to solve problems, such as with Innocentive, or provide yet more data, as seen with Zooniverse. For sequencing the human genome, Open Data enables collaboration and reduces replication. 
  • Local governments need Open Data as much as they need to provide it. That’s why there’s OpenGov, a web application that analyzes financial data for governments of all stripes. Such tools both inform public sector leaders and also build the sort of transparency that helps keep them accountable. 
  • An intriguing avenue for Open Data is the role it plays in enabling basic citizenship. Citizens hear from government, but how often do they feel like government hears them? If you want to see how Open Data could change this dynamic, consider the impact Yelp has had on businesses. Reputation matters to companies, since it translates into the amount of revenue they’ll receive over time. Yelp provides a platform for this consumer opinion to shape the marketplace. The results have been dramatic. Yelp has recently expanded into the public space in two ways. First, Yelp has encouraged government to be more open with its data, as seen in their gradual placement of restaurant health ratings alongside consumer reviews. Second, the company has begun to subject government services to its online reputation system. For instance, you can now offer feedback on your TSA checkpoint.

 

One tough topic with Open Data is the privacy question. Gurin knows that personal data is valuable, but recognizes the fears many have over its use. He proposes a “New Deal” on data that places more control in user’s hands. It would have been nice though for Gurin to spend more time not simply reflecting on data privacy, but the abuse of data itself. Fighting and countering clear instances of misuse would be a powerful form of protection for consumers and help to clarify important debates. 

Gurin also lays out his policy platform on government Open Data, saying that it must be:

  • Public, as much as possible;
  • Described, so everyone knows what they’re working with;
  • Reusable, which implies some discretion in terms of what data to release;
  • Complete, which says a lot about its quality;
  • Timely, rather than old and stale; and,
  • Managed post-release, ensuring it stays useable and relevant.

 

With these points in mind, probably the best operating principle for Open Data going forward comes on page 24 of Gurin’s book: 

If Open Data is free, how can anyone build a business on it? The answer is that Open Data is the starting point, not the end point, in deriving value from information. In general, governments have focused more on making the data itself available than on public-facing applications. The private sector can then add value by taking Open Data and building something great with it.

We don’t know what the future will bring with Open Data. We simply know opportunity when we see it. Even if a degree of that promise arises, “we’ll see real changes in innovation, business, and even daily life.”

Open Data Now by Joel Gurin