Defining open data

This week for this class I was asked to write about open data.  After attending Science Online 2012 (#scio12) this past week, it is obvious to me that one of the main advocates for open data are those within the science field.  This NYTimes article talks about open science, its importance and even, drumroll please….the conference I attended over the weekend.  The push to make more scientific data open and available, both in the form of results and raw data, is based on the premise that open access to this information could progress the field of science, connecting researchers all over the world, and allowing them to compare results, methodologies and have discussions.  If there’s one thing I learned at the conference, and there were many takeaways from this technology-driven unconference, it is that many scientists believe in the ideals of open science.  Data are also made open for the use of science bloggers and these bloggers often connect with the scientists themselves and have the ability, through open access to so many different types of research online, to find the context that’s necessary to paint a whole picture for readers of science blogs and science-related articles.  While I was there, I met everyone from scientists, science PR specialists, former scientists turned bloggers, bloggers turned scientists and even the average Joe with an appetite for science. Want to know more about open science?  Here’s a link to a session on the topic at last year’s conference:

Now, back to the general topic of open data.  What is it?  And how is it useful?  First off, there are several definitions of open data, however the general idea behind the term is basically the same:

According to Wikipedia:

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 content, and open access. The philosophy behind open data has been long established (for example in the Mertonian tradition of science), but the term “open data” itself is recent, gaining popularity with the rise of the Internet and, especially, with the launch of open-data government initiatives such as

Open data, as it stands now, is mainly available in the field of science, but much of the data that’s out there, the raw data that’s free and open to the public to use, actually comes from governments.  So, what the heck is open data good for?  With generally available data for all to see, data can be compiled for interactive use for many different purposes. Take a look at this TED talk and you’ll see just a few examples of how this kind of data is being used.

According to this UK government website, open data is defined as:

The idea behind open data is that information held by government should be freely available to use and re-mix by the public. It’s a movement to make non-personal data:

  • open so that it can be turned into useful applications
  • support transparency and accountability
  • make sharing data between public sector partners more efficient.

The Government is committed to making much more public data openly available. On 22 March 2010, the Prime Minister announced that the Government was going to:

“…use digital technology to open up data with the aim of providing every citizen in Britain with true ownership and accountability over the services they demand from government.”

Current and planned initiatives include:

  •, which is a single, easy-to-use website for access to 3,000 public data sets
  • the Office for National Statistics (ONS) opening up access to over two billion data items at the local neighbourhood level.

The UK government has done a lot with the data they’ve made open and available to the public.  Check out what they offer here.

The U.S. has a similar website, with interactive data sets, raw data sets and apps, just as in the UK.  You can check out all of that data here.

To take a look a little closer to home, check out Georgia’s open data website:

I hope that provides a good overview of what exactly open data is and why it is useful. I’m amazed at just how much raw data is out there and the thought crosses my mind that only a fraction of this data is probably being used in an efficient way.