Open data is a genuine force for public good 

This article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper hit an important issue for open data.  Jeni Tennison of the UK’s Open Data Institute points to the distinction between open data (data that are free to everyone) and shared data (data that are shared selectively, sometimes to generate revenue).

While this seems obvious, the distinction is significant.  There comes a time in any open data initiative when public servants face the choice between short-term revenue generation and the possibility that more significant benefits might be delivered in the longer-term through an open data approach.  It doesn’t help that identifying, realising and measuring the benefits of open data continues to prove difficult.

As Jeni says, open data does represent a ‘public good’.  However, to drive open data-centred cultural change in the public sector, we need to go further.  How will public value be delivered?  Where will this value be realised, when, and by whom?

Externally, a combination of social and economic benefits should emerge.  Internally, open data can stimulate improved information asset management and utilisation, and may provide a viable alternate path for inter-agency data sharing.  A simple but relevant benefits framework enables government ministers and agency CEOs to align the promise of open data with policy commitments and agency goals, enabling them to forego short-term revenue generation opportunities in favour of benefits that are more significant but harder to realise.

Of course, not all government data should be open.  There are many reasons for this, the most obvious being information privacy.  Any open data program needs to perform a cost-benefit analysis around data release.  It is important to understand not only the benefits of an open data release, but also the risks.  What is a government’s risk appetite relating to open data and how will this be reflected in decision-making processes for investment and data release?  Public servants need an assessment framework to help them make well-founded decisions on data release.  Creating an effective open data strategy demands careful consideration of the critical parameters of cost, benefit and risk.

Open data is a genuine force for public good.  While the benefits are hard to quantify, there are many instances in which we can assess a positive impact on government and society.  But let’s commit to the hard work needed to succeed.  Many data sets can and should be released.  We need better ways to identify these and realise the benefits.  But other data should be shared on a discretionary basis to deliver value in a more targeted fashion.

In the end, this is about recognising the characteristics and intrinsic value of our data, then taking the steps necessary to unlock that value.  The mix of open and shared data doesn’t matter as much as creating a vibrant ‘data economy’ in which information is used more effectively to create value for government, business and the wider community.


Neil Makepeace
Chief Executive Officer