The argument for Open Access to Public Sector Data

Via Iceland, a very good overview of the basic argument for opening access to government data collections:

Hjálmar Gíslason:

I’d like to argue that any data gathered by a government organization should be made openly accessible online. Open access, means absence of all legal, technical and discriminating restrictions on the use or redistribution of data. The only exception to this rule should be when other interests – most importantly privacy issues – warrant access limitations.

There is a number of reasons for this.

First of all, we (the taxpayers) have already paid for it, so it’s only logical that we can use the product we bought in any way we please. If gathering the relevant data and selling it can be a profitable business on its own, it should be done in the private sector, not by the government.
Secondly it gives the public insight into the work done by our organizations in a similar way as Freedom of Information laws have done – mainly through media access to public sector documents and other information.

The most important argument – however – is that open access really pays off. Opening access and thereby getting the data in the hands of businesses, scientists, students and creative individuals will spur innovation and release value far beyond anything that a government organization can ever think of or would ever spend their limited resources on.

Some of these might be silly online games with little monetary value but yet highly entertaining. Others might be new scientific discoveries made when data from apparently unrelated data sources is mixed. And yet others might be rich visualizations that give new insights on some of the fundamental workings of society – showing where there’s need for attention and room for improvement.

A recent study on the state of matters with Public Sector data in the UK concluded that the lack of Open Access is costing the nation about 1 billion pounds annually in lost opportunities and lack of competition in various areas. Per capita, a billion pounds in the UK equals about 750 million ISK for Iceland and that’s without adjusting for Iceland’s higher GDP and arguably some fixed gains per nation.
Surely a huge opportunity for something that requires only a thoughtful policy change and a little budget adjustment to enable the institutions to make the needed changes and continue their great job of gathering valuable data

2 Comments The argument for Open Access to Public Sector Data

  1. Eric Hunting

    This reminds me of a project of the World Game Institute called Worldometers. (

    Buckminster Fuller proposed the World Game as a way to educate the public and politicians of the folly of Malthusianist logic and zero-sum economics through the use of a simple global trade simulation role playing game based on real-world resource and demographic data. The World Game Institute was founded to carry this idea on and for years has been attempting to create a master-database of live global statistics in the form of modular ‘counters’ that could be plugged into -like RSS feeds- into other software applications. The objective was to create a live networked version of the World Game that could be played on-line by people all over the globe -to use this game like a kind of ICE (in-circuit emulator) for experimenting with how to achieve post-scarcity. Unfortunately, the WGI’s activities seem to have become rather disorganized and there’s been some fractionalization. For instance, one faction tried to create a for-profit business from the world game, running it sort of like one of those traveling corporate ‘team building’ seminars. The Worldometers site also seems to have abandoned earlier modular formats and no longer offers the large database it once did. So things look nebulous with the overall World Game project.

    The futurist Jacque Fresco ( envisioned this going even farther with a concept he dubbed ‘cybernation’. The idea was to combine this same sort of live world statistics database with live global environmental monitoring -creating a digital nervous system for the environment- then use these as the basis of an expert system which could assess the state of the world and tell you exactly and automatically where resources needed to go in the world and what other interventions were needed where. In effect, a World Game that played itself. Eventually this system could be plugged into resource management systems that followed the expert system’s suggestions automatically -like a computer that could generate work orders for different activities and buy and sell orders on its own. Eventually the whole system might be automated, the system serving as a cybernetic brain for the management of the earth’s resources and environment. Fresco saw this as the basis of a new resourced based economy and ultimately the basis of a new society.

    This notion also resurfaced in a rather peculiar way through an obscure 1980s movie starring William Shatner caller Voice Of The Planet. Part SciFi story, part psuedo-documentary, the movie concerned an environmental scientist, played by Shatner, who goes on a retreat to the monasteries of Tibet where he discovers the more technically savvy monks have built a supercomputer just like Fresco imagined, plugged into a global web of sensors and a world statistics database so as to give the planet Earth the means to be conversed with like HAL 9000. The bulk of the movie concerned the hero’s lengthy scientific and philosophical discussions with this planetary personality, focused on an exposition of its environmental problems and what humans are and aren’t doing about them.

  2. Sepp Hasslberger

    I agree that open access to public data should be a standard operating procedure. The question is: How to force the issue? Or whether that is necessary at all. Perhaps a little start here, an imitation there, the idea spreads … and pretty soon we’ll have access to more and more of that huge repository of data collected with our money.

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