The Three Laws of Open Government Data

Yesterday, at the Right To Know Week panel discussion – Conference for Parliamentarians: Transparency in the Digital Era – organized by the Office of the Information Commissioner I shared three laws for Open Government Data that I’d devised on the flight from Vancouver.

The Three Laws of Open Government Data:

  1. If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
  2. If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage
  3. If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower

To explain, (1) basically means: Can I find it? If Google (and/or other search engines) can’t find it, it essentially doesn’t exist for most citizens. So you’d better ensure that you are optimized to be crawled by all sorts of search engine spiders.

After I’ve found it, (2) notes that, to be useful, I need to be able to play with the data. Consequently, I need to be able to pull or download it in a useful format (e.g. an API, subscription feed, or a documented file). Citizens need data in a form that lets them mash it up with Google Maps or other data sets, or analyze in Excel. This is essentially the difference between VanMaps (look, but don’t play) and the Vancouver Data Portal, (look, take and play!). Citizens who can’t play with information are citizens who are disengaged/marginalized from the discussion.

Finally, even if I can find it and play with it, (3) highlights that I need a legal framework that allows me to share what I’ve created, to mobilize other citizens, provide a new service or just point out an interesting fact. This is the difference between Canada’s House of Parliament’s information (which, due to crown copyright, you can take, play with, but don’t you dare share or re-publish) and say, which “pursuant to federal law, government-produced materials appearing on this site are not copyright protected.”

Find, Play and Share. That’s want we want.

Of course, a brief scan of the internet has revealed that others have also been thinking about this as well. There is this excellent 8 Principle of Open Government Data that are more detailed, and admittedly better, especially for a CIO level and lower conversation.  But for talking to politicians (or Deputy Ministers or CEOs), like those in attendance during yesterday’s panel or, later that afternoon, the Speaker of the House, I found the simplicity of three resonated more strongly; it is a simpler list they can remember and demand.

82 thoughts on “The Three Laws of Open Government Data

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  6. Name

    Yeah, I don't like 'play' either. Sounds like gaming, or other pursuits related to leisure time. Public officials I know would switch to 'off' with that term among the three.'Use' works, or what about 'build'? Find, build, share. Or, 'add value'.

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  8. Public servant

    Hi, I'm a government employee, although I'm commenting purely on my own behalf. I was sitting in the back of the room during that panel discussion earlier this week, and I definitely think you've got some great ideas. As someone who spent a lot of time doing academic research, I think the idea of making government data sets available and ready-to-use (whatever that use may be) is excellent. And more interactivity certainly can't hurt in getting more people our age (I'm guessing you're like me, mid-to-late twenties?) to really engage with their government.That said, may I suggest you modify your message a bit if you truly want to sell it to government? If you believe that the public service is behind the techno-curve, then it would follow that you shouldn't be speaking to public servants in techno-jargon and buzzwords. The language you use in your “Three Rules” is, I'm sure, second nature to the tech-savvy. However, to an audience that is (or that you believe to be) less knowledgeable, it would make sense to explain your terms at what to you probably seems like an absurdly basic level. What do “spidering” and “indexing” mean in the online context? What do you mean by “open and machine readable format”? (Your example of the Vancouver city government's open data helped make that part more understandable, although I would still be careful assuming everyone knows what an “.xml” does. A lot of people in that room only know “indexing” in the context of library shelves.)This may seem ridiculous to you, but not everyone with a computer has to know how to program, just as not everyone with a car needs to be a mechanic, and not everyone who flies needs to be a pilot. I'm your age and I'm a techno-peasant by that standard. Now consider the age of the average public servant, especially the ones whose knowledge and experience you're most hoping to capture before they retire…I'm not saying you don't have good ideas, but you need to put them in really plain language with a lot of explanation if you want to convince government generally of how good they are. There's a good discussion of this issue here:…One other tip for presenting to government people: be very careful about using the word “literally”. If information can't be found, then yes, it *might as well* not exist, it *is as good as if* it does not exist…but unless the failure of, say, a hard copy book to register in a Google search causes that book to spontaneously dematerialize from a library shelf, it does not “literally* cease to exist. This may seem nit-picky, and I'll confess that to some extent it is, but I guarantee you I'm not the only person in the room who noticed. There were a lot of bright, educated people there, and if you're misusing words they do understand, they're more likely to write off your great claims about new technology that they don't.As someone who *wants* to see our institutional memory captured and preserved, and our government as open and responsive as possible, I wish you luck!

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  10. Richard Melville

    Excellent article.@Jon Stahl: I agree that “use” is better than “play”.@David Eaves: “…or analyze in Excel”. Surely this excludes those that do not use Microsoft products.

  11. Todd Lyons

    Hi David. Like Richard, I concur that this is an excellent piece and that I'm a bit disappointed in your interpretation of “open and machine readable format”. For full effect, this law should embrace open standards so that access to the information isn't dependent upon the purchase of any particular corporation's software. A “machine readable format” isn't of much use, if your machine lacks the software to read the proprietary format, and the value of that format is questionable when it has a history of successive, incompatible revisions (necessitating additional software upgrades to be able to read the current generation of format). Using open formats like OpenDocument (for documents) and Ogg (for audio and video) makes the data truly accessible to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay for software. Thank you for all that you're doing. These posts, and the discussions they provoke are immensely valuable.

  12. Citizen

    If your 'play' means use or analyse, then I don't see why you can only look VanMaps but can't play? If your 'play' means build or develop, then I don't see why 'Citizens who can't play(build and develop) with information are citizens who are disengaged/marginalized from the discussion. If you are hungry, you can choose to eat in a restaurant or to cook by yourself. Eating in a restaurant or cooking for yourself or others both serve the need for food.

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  17. David Eaves

    Public Servant – your comments aren't ridiculous at all! We definitely need to key this message to it hits people at a level they can understand. If the language is still too technical then it needs to be massaged, so please hear that your comments are seen as nothing but helpful.Lots of interesting things brewing on the open data front, thank you for the luck and I hope to have more to share soon.

  18. David Eaves

    Thank you Todd – I'm a big believer in posting files and data in multiple formats. There are open standards and then there are defacto standards – I'm not such a ideologue that I believe things should only be available in open standards (e.g. ODF or Ogg) but that they should be available in both (so am in complete agreement with you). That said, I know this line might make some more ardent open standard folks unhappy but the fact is, a huge number of people have no idea what an ODF is and wouldn't know how to open it, so we've got to give them open standards and standards they use.

  19. David Eaves

    Citizen – I'll confess to being a little confused. My main point here is that you can't “play” (or use) VanMaps data. You can't mash it up with other data sets or embed it into your own website, you can't even download it to analyze it on a mapping platform of your choosing. All you can do (literally) is look at it, which is nice, but frankly isn't that interesting.

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  30. Kevin Jones

    Well, here's my spanish translation of your three laws. This hasn't been proof read by a native speaker yet. Maybe you should set up a wiki or something so that people can fix my mistakes, add the other languages, and translate the rest of the blog post. I think translating the blog post would be a lot easier than the laws, by the way.Las Tres Leyes de Información de Gobierno Abierto:1. Si no es accesible para las arañas de web, no existe.2. Si no es disponible en un formato que puede ser leído y procesado con éxito por una computadora, no puede motivar.3. Si un framework legal no permitir alguien para hacer obras derivadas, no da poder.

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  32. mark

    I really like the sentiment but not convinced on the detail, for example 1. If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t existI take this to mean you want to capture these data in a search engine. Now, pointers to data, I would agree. But the data itself – can you categorically say that all data must be able to be captured in a search engine? That's might be google's view on the world, but I suspect that there are some things with DO exist but which are not suitable for catpure in a search engine..

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