Open, and better, data

Open data is frequently promoted as a ‘good thing’, rather in the sense of the Sellar & Yeatman classic “1066 and All That“, where something is either a ‘good thing’ or a ‘bad thing’. As is explained in “Open data is not enough” by Raka Banerjee from the World Bank in his July 2011 blog, open data that is inaccurate and biased is a ‘bad thing’ and rather than being of not much use, such data can actually cause harm when used by statisticians and researchers to inform policy.

Scientists are normally quite clear about data quality but when open data is becoming part of a demand culture, unless those supplying it are aware of and sensitive to the outcomes that may result by its use, the citizens are in more danger from the production of the data than from its absence. About a year I posted upon the topic of “Council Web Costs“, following a newspaper report employing Freedom of Information data, where the person requesting it had limited knowledge of either web development or local government. The resulting figures were unhelpful to say the least.

Imagine a similar context where health policy was being decided based upon data that had been extracted similarly, not only would money be wasted investing in the wrong places, but underinvestment might take place where support was urgently needed. Open data is only a ‘good thing’ when we are assured that the data is good, and that is the job of both the requestor and the supplier.


One Response to Open, and better, data

  1. vickysargent says:

    ‘Open data that is inaccurate and biased is a ‘bad thing’ and …….can actually cause harm when used by statisticians and researchers to inform policy.’

    Hard to disagree, but a dangerous argument to use because it can end up supporting efforts to shut down the move to open data rather than efforts to improve the data that is published.

    A key point about data being open is that is open to be challenged by people who often have greater knowledge and standing than those who have published it, or who have access to other data that can challenge conclusions drawn.

    When the web costs data was published around this time last year, it provided an excellent opportunity to discuss and explain something that was little discussed or understood or cared about by public sector decision-makers. It raised the profile of the the whole issue, and encouraged our efforts, at Socitm, to do more to help councils and other public bodies to get to grips with data about the cost and volumes of the enquiries they get – which remains an area with huge potential for cost saving.

    Things have not changed overnight, and of course they never do, but there is growing interest in this area, thanks in a small part to debate stimulated by the totally rubbish data that the Telegraph’s FoI request produced.

    Only last week, Aberdeen City Council, supported by Socitm, put out a call for information about the size/shape/scope of web teams. We are getting an excellent response, and the survey results will undoubtedly provide some really useful data to increase understanding in this area (go to for more info).

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