It’s not that long ago that open data was set to change the world. Governments across the globe opened their vast vaults of data. By mid-2010, it looked like the river of data was unstoppable.
First the US launch of data.gov, then data.gov.uk — and then a “tsunami” of open data around the globe, from Bahrain to Ghana. Choose a country, it probably has an open data portal that anyone can access. It matters because that open data promises a golden age of transparency that allows us, the people who after all pay for that data to be collected, to access to the raw information of government.
Here’s something I wrote at the time:
“We will unleash a tsunami of data” … The Big Society declaration published by Downing Street included a key line: “We will create a new ‘right to data’ so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.”
A right to data. It’s worth taking a moment to let that sink in. This is not a random luxury, but a right we are all entitled to.
Open data requires open data journalism to make sense of it all, of course. Journalists are uniquely placed to make sense of the numbers and open them up for readers desperate for facts and a greater understanding of what’s going on around them. Whether it’s crime data or health statistics, the promise of open data was too great to be fulfilled in just a few years but promised a new era of greater awareness for all of us.
And yet, and yet… Here we are in 2017 with many of those involved in the open data movement afraid of what the future holds. Wired reports that scientists are saving climate change data they fear would disappear. And they are not alone. Sunlight Foundation’s deputy director Alex Howard is keeping a running list of disappearing government datasets and the efforts to save them. Sites like datarefuge.org or data.world are becoming havens for government datasets.
That community involvement may represent the future of open government data. Up until now, we have relied on the governments of the world to do what we asked and release their data. But essentially it’s been at the pleasure of those governments. What happens when that pleasure lessens?
If we agree that access to open data is, indeed, a right, are those initiatives enough? Does it take more yet to make it a reality? How safe is the data really?
Alexander Hamilton wrote that rights can never be erased. And that applies to the right to open data too. “They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased.”
That sunbeam has been turned onto the data that illuminates our existence. And that is something that can never be turned off again.
Simon Rogers is a data journalist, author and director of the Data Journalism Awards. simonrogers.net