October 9, 2020

Open Data Means…Nothing?

Open Data: Figure it Out!

This is a call to action for those who share my love of Open Data: it’s time to reassess our strategy.

The May 6th Go Open Data Conference 2016 , held at Seneca College, preached to the converted.  It could have paved the way to a new kind of message for the Open Data cause.  It did not.  Although interesting (I was particularly happy to hear speeches on advocacy which seemed rather new in the open data community), many stories targeted individuals already involved in the Open Data cause.   Few presenters seemed to notice that the conference attracted a crowd who wanted to answer a deeper, and more practical, question.

What is Open Data?  

During open question sessions, countless individuals noted that they were not from the open data community.  They had heard about the concepts, and were wondering what all the fuss was about.  Hearing success stories is encouraging, but I don’t think for these people the use cases were compelling enough to convince them that Open Data can have a significantly positive impact on their lives.

Simple answer: nothing.  

It so happens that not everybody is technology oriented, and most people do not understand why it is so imperative to publish government datasets.

Roy Thomas, from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs & Housing, stated that the government releases data to allow people to analyse it.

He indicated that although our government works hard to release datasets, it still has to carry out its normal duties within the same timelines.

The end result is the release of data that is not comprehensive, and the citizens have to extract information from its raw form.

At rel8ed.to, we gain insights from raw data by cleaning  and refining it (transforming it into something that can be used for statistical analysis), linking it (merging corresponding data) and mining it (using special algorithms and database knowledge to discover patterns within large datasets).  This level of expertise may not be needed in all cases, but experience is still required.  Minimally, citizens should be confident in their cleaning, analyzing and graphing skills.

The problem is, very few individuals already have those skills.  This was clearly voiced during the afternoon session on Better Living for Cities: Using Open Data for Social Good, where presenters were asked how untrained individuals could gain confidence in their analysis.

Their reply seemed to be:  Play with data, get used to it and become confident in what you find over time.  That is easier said than done.

To clean data, you need coding experience, to analyze data, you need a strong statistical foundation and to represent it, you need some knowledge about graphing tools.  In other words, the “play with data” strategy is kind of like telling a child to learn how to read on their own.  Granted, if you never try, you never learn; but training IS necessary for both understanding the process and executing it properly.

I strongly believe that if the Open Data Movement wants to recruit more supporters, they will need to educate the population not only on the benefits of Open Data, but also on using it.  Empowering our society is the most straightforward way of advancing our cause.  We have to stop advertising to communities and start educating them.

What would we gain by educating the population?

Educating is empowering.  If we teach the general population how to properly use and display results, we give them the ability to make a difference in their community.  Nelson Mandela could not have explained this more clearly: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

We need those additional minds to solve problems in novel ways, to process this huge amount of data and to increase our ability to open discussion with the government for the release of specific datasets.

So, what are we really talking about when we say Open Data?  Usually, it refers to information that can be used for any purpose, including commercial.  This will be outlined in a licence that can typically be found in the Terms of Use of websites.

Some datasets have other kinds of licences that can restrict their use to personal inquiries, or that require attribution.  They are generally released by the government, although it is possible to find other sources. 

At rel8ed.to, we believe that this education, both on Open Data and its ethical use, should start early. This is why we are currently promoting a new solution to be implemented in schools, which focuses on empowering students to make a real difference in their communities using Open Data.

Teacher training combined with an interactive learning tool allows for data management experience while learning statistics and probability.  If you are a teacher, help us make a difference, and take our survey.

We want to engage students so that their families also become engaged.  In a few years, those same students will be entering the work force where they will influence the companies that hire them.  Just think about the impact this could cause for the Open Data Community.  In the meantime, we can still work together to strive for an Open Data Strategy.

Open Data as a Viable Ecosystem?

Businesses should be our second target.  Bringing them into the Open Data Debate brings monetary leverage, and that could be obtained in a very clever way.  During rel8ed.to founder Bob Lytle’s presentation, an interesting question was posed.  What could the government do to insure that there is a return from businesses using the datasets we are so nicely putting out there?  For an ecosystem to be viable, resources cannot just be spent, they also have to be harvested.

Businesses use data from the government for free; however, it is important to note that the data received from all departments is not complementary.  The population pays individuals for the time they spend releasing those datasets.  Companies end up using those sources, analysing and interpreting them, which they resell, for a price.  How do we ensure that the business use of these datasets will create a positive return for the community?  Tough question!

Kevin Tuer, director of the Open Data Exchange made a very powerful statement in his presentation: to ensure that data does not disappear, we need to give it a reason to stay available.  This is where participation for social good could be very beneficial for businesses.  Providing a return to the governing body and ultimately benefitting the community encourages data availability. This increases the influence of businesses on government bodies to release the datasets they want.  Google and other service providers already count on a similar ecosystem which has proven to be quite effective.  A joint benefit for businesses and community signifies symbiotic growth, continued availability of data and a collective discussion ground with the government for common projects.  Who knows? This partnership could pave the way to the rejuvenation of the Canadian Archives!

Let’s Make Open Data Meaningful for the Average Citizen

We are currently witnessing the beginning of a new kind of economy.  Wouldn’t it be wise to ensure its viability before it reaches full speed?  Let’s play smart.    Start advocating for clean government datasets, transform Hackathons into Teachathons and solve the tough question: How do we ensure that commercial use of open datasets will create a positive return for the community?

We can create this virtuous circle right now.  Why wait?

This post was written by Valérie Plante-Brisebois

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