Category Archives: open data

Canada’s Draft Open Government Plan — The Promise and Problems Reviewed

Backdrop

On Friday the Canadian Government released its draft national action plan. Although not mentioned overtly in the document, these plans are mandated by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), in which member countries must draft National Action Plans every two years where they lay out tangible goals.

I’ve both written reviews about these plans before and offered suggestions about what should be in them. So this is not my first rodeo, nor is it for the people drafting them.

Purpose of this piece

In the very niche world of open government there are basically two types of people. Those who know about the OGP and Canada’s participation (hello 0.01%!), and those who don’t (hello overwhelming majority of people — excited you are reading this).

If you are a journalist, parliamentarian, hill staffer, academic, public servant, consultant, vendor, or everyday interested citizen already following this topic, here are thoughts and ideas to help shape your criticisms and/or focus your support and advice to government. If you are new to this world, this post can provide context about the work the Canadian Government is doing around transparency to help facilitate your entrance into this world. I’ll be succinct — as the plan is long, and your time is finite.

That said, if you want more details about thoughts, please email me — happy to share more.

The Good

First off, there is lots of good in the plan. The level of ambition is quite high, a number of notable past problems have been engaged, and the goals are tangible.

While there are worries about wording, there are nonetheless a ton of things that have been prioritized in the document that both myself and many people in the community have sought to be included in past plans. Please note, that “prioritized” is distinct from “this is the right approach/answer.” Among these are:

  • Opening up the Access to Information Act so we can update it for the 21st century. (Commitment 1)
  • Providing stronger guarantees that Government scientists — and the content they produce — is made available to the public, including access to reporters (Commitment 14)
  • Finding ways to bake transparency and openness more firmly into the culture and processes of the public service (Commitment 6 and Commitment 7)
  • Ensuring better access to budget and fiscal data (Commitment 9, Commitment 10 and Commitment 11)
  • Coordinating different levels of government around common data standards to enable Canadians to better compare information across jurisdictions (Commitment 16)
  • In addition, the publishing of Mandate Letters (something that was part of the Ontario Open by Default report I helped co-author) is a great step. If nothing else, it helps public servants understand how to better steer their work. And the establishment of Cabinet Committee on Open Government is worth watching.

Lots of people, including myself, will find things to nit pick about the above. And it is always nice to remember:

a) It is great to have a plan we can hold the government accountable to, it is better than the alternative of no plan

b) I don’t envy the people working on this plan. There is a great deal to do, and not a lot of time. We should find ways to be constructive, even when being critical

Three Big Ideas the Plan Gets Right

Encouragingly, there are three ideas that run across several commitments in the plan that feel thematically right.

Changing Norms and Rules

For many of the commitments, the plan seeks to not simply get tactical wins but find ways to bake changes into the fabric of how things get done. Unlike previous plans, one reads a real intent to shift culture and make changes that are permanent and sustainable.

Executing on this is exceedingly difficult. Changing culture is both hard to achieve and measure. And implementing reforms that are difficult or impossible to reverse is no cake walk either, but the document suggests the intent is there. I hope we can all find ways to support that.

User Centric

While I’m not a fan of all the metrics of success, there is a clear focus on making life easier for citizens and users. Many of the goals have an underlying interest of creating simplicity for users (e.g. a single place to find “x” or “y”). This matters. An effective government is one that meets the needs of its citizens. Figuring out how to make things accessible and desirable to use, particularly with information technology, has not been a strength of governments in the past. This emphasis is encouraging.

There is also intriguing talk of a “Client-First” service strategy… More on that below.

Data Standards

There is lots of focus on data standards. Data standards matter because it is hard to use data — particularly across government, or from different governments and organizations — if they have different standards. Imagine trying if every airline used a different standard to their tickets, so to book a trip involving more than one airline would be impossible as their computers wouldn’t be able to share information with one another, or you. That challenging scenario is what government looks like today. So finding standards can help make government more legible.

So seeing efforts like piloting the Open Contracting Data Standard in Commitment 9, getting provincial and local governments to harmonize data with the feds in Commitment 16 and “Support Openness and Transparency Initiatives around the World” in Commitment Commitment 18 are nice…

… and it also makes it glaring when it is not there. Commitment 17 — Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act — is still silent about implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative standard and so feels inconsistent with the other commitments. More on this below.

The Big Concerns

While there are some good themes, there are also some concerning ones. Three in particular stand out:

Right Goal, Wrong Strategy

At the risk of alienating some colleagues, I’m worried about the number of goals that are about transparency for transparency’s sake. While I’m broadly in favour of such goals… they often risk leading nowhere.

I’d much rather see specific problems the government wants to focus its resources on open data or sharing scientific materials on. When no focus is defined and the goal is to just “make things transparent” what tends to get made transparent is what’s easy, not what’s important.

So several commitments, like numbers 3, 13, 14, 15, essentially say “we are going to put more data sets or more information on our portals.” I’m not opposed to this… but I’m not sure it will build support and alignment because doing that won’t be shaped to help people solve today’s problems.

A worse recommendation in this vein is “establish a national network of open data users within industry to collaborate on the development of standards and practices in support of data commercialization.” There is nothing that will hold these people together. People don’t come together to create open data standards, they come together to solve a problem. So don’t congregate open data users — they have nothing in common — this is like congregating “readers.” They may all read, but their expertise will span a wide variety of interests. Bring people together around a problem and then get focused on the data that will help them solve it.

To get really tangible, on Friday the Prime Minister had a round table with local housing experts in Vancouver. One outcome of that meeting might have been the Prime Minister stating, “this is a big priority, I’m going to task someone with finding all the data the federal government has that is relevant to this area so that all involved have the most up to date and relevant information we can provide to improve all our analyses.”

Now maybe the feds have no interesting data on this topic. Maybe they do. Maybe this is one of the PMOs top 6 priorities, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, the government should pick 3–8 policy areas they care deeply about and focus sharing data and information on those. Not to the exclusion of others, but to provide some focus. Both to public servants internally, so they can focus their efforts, and to the public. That way, experts, the public and anyone can, if they are able, grab the data to help contribute to the public discourse on the topic.

There is one place where the plan comes close to taking this approach, in Commitment 22: Engage Canadians to Improve Key Canada Revenue Agency Services. It talks a lot about public consultations to engage on charitable giving, tax data, and improving access to benefits. This section identifies some relatively specific problem the government wants to solve. If the government said it was going to disclose all data it could around these problems and work with stakeholders to help develop new research and analysis… then they would have nailed it.

Approaches like those suggested above might result in new and innovative policy solutions from both traditional and non-traditional sources. But equally important, such an approach to a “transparency” effort will have more weight from Ministers and the PMO behind it, rather than just the OGP plan. It might also show governments how transparency — while always a source of challenges— is also a tool that can help advance their agenda by promoting conversations and providing feedback. Above all it would create some models, initially well supported politically, that could then be scaled to other areas.

Funding

I’m not sure if I read this correctly but the funding, with $11.5M in additional funds over 5 years (or is that the total funding?) is feeling like not a ton to work with given all the commitments. I suspect many of the commitments have their own funding in various departments… but it makes it hard to assess how much support there is for everything in the plan.

Architecture

This is pretty nerdy… but there are several points in the plan where it talks about “a single online window” or “single, common search tool.” This is a real grey area. There are times when a single access point is truly transformative… it creates a user experience that is intuitive and easy. And then there are times when a single online window is a Yahoo! portal when what you really want is to just go to google and do your search.

The point to this work is the assumption that the main problem to access is that things can’t be found. So far, however, I’d say that’s an assumption, I’d prefer the government test that assumption before making it a plan. Why Because a LOT of resources can be expended creating “single online windows.”

I mean, if all these recommendations are just about creating common schemas that allow multiple data sources to be accessed by a single search tool then… good? (I mean please provide the schema and API as well so others can create their own search engines). But if this involves merging databases and doing lots of backend work… ugh, we are in for a heap of pain. And if we are in for a heap of pain… it better be because we are solving a real need, not an imaginary one.

The Bad

There are a few things that I think have many people nervous.

Access to Information Act Review

While there is lots of good in that section, there is also some troubling language. Such as:

  • A lot of people will be worried about the $5 billing fee for FOIA requests. If you are requesting a number of documents, this could represent a real barrier. I also think it creates the wrong incentives. Governments should be procuring systems and designing processes that make sharing documents frictionless — this implies that costs are okay and that there should be friction in performing this task.
  • The fact that Government institutions can determine a FOIA request is “frivolous” or “vexatious” so can thus be denied. Very worried about the language here.
  • I’m definitely worried about having mandatory legislative review of the Access to Information Act every five years. I’d rather get it right once every 15–30 years and have it locked in stone than give governments a regular opportunity to tinker with and dilute it.

Commitment 12: Improve Public Information on Canadian Corporations

Having a common place for looking up information about Canadian Corporations is good… However, there is nothing in this about making available the trustees or… more importantly… the beneficial owners. The Economist still has the best article about why this matters.

Commitment 14: Increase Openness of Federal Science Activities (Open Science)

Please don’t call it “open” science. Science, by definition, is open. If others can’t see the results or have enough information to replicate the experiment, then it isn’t science. Thus, there is no such thing as “open” vs. “closed” science. There is just science, and something else. Maybe it’s called alchemy or bullshit. I don’t know. But don’t succumb to the open science wording because we lose a much bigger battle when you do.

It’s a small thing. But it matters.

Commitment 15: Stimulate Innovation through Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX)

I already talked about about how I think bringing together “open data” users is a big mistake. Again, I’d focus on problems, and congregate people around those.

I also suspect that incubating 15 new data-driven companies by June 2018 is not a good idea. I’m not persuaded that there are open data businesses, just businesses that, by chance, use open data.

Commitment 17: Implement the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act

If the Extractives Sector Transparency Measures Act is that same as it was before then… this whole section is a gong show. Again, no EITI standard in this. Worse, the act doesn’t require extractive industries to publish payments to foreign governments in a common standard (so it will be a nightmare to do analysis across companies or industry wide). Nor does it require that companies submit their information to a central repository, so aggregating the data about the industry will be nigh high impossible (you’ll have to search across hundreds of websites).

So this recommendation: “Establish processes for reporting entities to publish their reports and create means for the public to access the reports” is fairly infuriating as it a terrible non-solution to a problem in the legislation.

Maybe the legislation has been fixed. But I don’t think so.

The Missing

Not in the plan is any reference to the use of open source software or shares that software across jurisdictions. I’ve heard rumours of some very interesting efforts of sharing software between Ontario and the federal government that potentially saves tax payers millions of dollars. In addition, by making the software code open, the government could employ security bug bounties to try to make it more secure. Lots of opportunity here.

The Intriguing

The one thing that really caught my eye, however, was this (I mentioned it earlier):

The government is developing a Service Strategy that will transform service design and delivery across the public service, putting clients at the centre.

Now that is SUPER interesting. A “Service Strategy”? Does this mean something like the Government Digital Service in the UK? Because that would require some real resources. Done right it wouldn’t just be about improving how people get services, but a rethink of how government organizes services and service data. Very exciting. Watch that space.

Canada’s Opaque Transparency – An Open Data Failure

Yesterday, at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s (PDAC) Canada Minister of Natural Resource, Joe Oliver, announced with great fanfare a new initiative to compel mining companies to disclose payments of over $100,000’s to foreign and domestic governments.

On the surface this looks like a win for transparency, particularly for a sector that is of great importance to Canada: mining.

And this issue matters since not only do extractive industries represent an important part of Canada’s economy, but the sector has been dogged with controversy. Indeed the Toronto Star just uncovered today a report commissioned (and buried) by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) that showed Canadian mining companies have the worst record when it comes to environmental standard and human rights.

Forcing mining companies to account for their payments to foreign and domestic governments won’t solve every problem, but it can help curb corruption. Indeed the issue was seen as so important that at the last G8 summit, the leaders agreed that companies should be compelled to disclose these payments.

Happily, there is a legitimate global movement to make government payments by extractive industry companies more transparent. It is called the Extractive Industries Transparency Iniative (EITI). It has set a series of standards for disclosing such payments so that they are easier to track across borders. In fact EITI is seen as so important it is actually the only organization mentioned by name in the last G8 summit communique. This is the same EITI program about which last year the Minister’s press secretary boasted:

Since 2007 Canada has also been a supporting country of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and is now the second largest financial donor to the initiative, providing $12.65 million to the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Multi-donor Trust Fund…

Which brings us to Minister Oliver’s important announcement.

Did the government announce that it was joining 42 other countries, including its G8 partners the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to join the standard it has been a major funder of?

No. It did not.

Apparently EITI is good enough to fund so that others can implement it. When it comes to actually doing what is effective… the government balked. Canada, apparently, is going to adhere to its own “unique” approach.

And it gets worse.

Read the Minister’s statement more closely, particularly this line:

“We want to make it as easy as possible, so we will not create a central database. Instead, we would require that reports be posted to company websites, with the government and public notified.”

So unlike EITI, which offers a centralized repository where records can quickly be downloaded and compared, Canada’s “compliance” will involve each company to maintain their own records “somewhere” and will require anyone interested if actually figuring out what is going on to go and track down each one individually.

We call this secrecy by obscurity. It makes a mockery of the notion of transparency.

We have a global infrastructure designed to make disclosure cheap, easy and effective. Infrastructure our own government has poured $12.7M into it. And we turn around and ignore it all.

Canada claims it wants to be a leader in open data. But if it can’t even get something basic like this right… such claims sounds increasingly silly here at home, among our G8 partners and, well, among the rest of the world.

Addendum: It gets worse still. Few people have noticed yet, but Canada recently (and quietly) stopped reporting the names of corporate directors in the public database of the country’s firms. This is a major step backwards and makes those who benefit from one of the most important benefits society can confer – limited liability – invisible to the public who confers that right. This is a major step backwards. Read this wonderful Economist article on why. More on this to come.

Open Data Day 2014 – Five Fun Events Around the World

With over 110 Events happening world wide it is impossible to talk about every Open Data Day event. But looking almost every event on the wiki I’ve been deeply moved and inspired by the various efforts, goals and aspirations of the people who have organized these events.

In order to help others understand why Open Data Day matters as well as what can happen on it, here are five open data day events that I’m stumbled across that are doing something particularly fun or interesting.

1. Capetown & Johannesburg, South Africa

Their Description:

Coders, data wranglers and data investigators will pair up to look at one of three openly available datasets we have on hand, and work out the most interesting questions they can ask of it in less than half an hour. After 30 minutes, it’s all change – another desk, another partnership, another exciting data set to turn into a story.

What we’re hoping is that you’ll learn tips and tricks for getting data, querying it, creating quick visualizations and turning it to stories that people want to know about. You’ll learn from different people with a variety of skills, hopefully that you wouldn’t normally work with. And we’re also hoping it will be four hours of fun.

Why I love it: I love the focus on learning. With the participation of hacks and hackers the goal is clearly to help journalists and citizens learn new skills, not so they can do something with the data sets available on open data day, but so they can better play with data sets in the future to pursue stories or help a community. The point of speed data dating is thus not to build a product, the product is the skills and networks developed and, with luck the future stories and analyses that will be told by those who participated.

2. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Their description:

On February 22nd we will go out to the street and play with local data and some street artists to create beautiful visualizations.

Why I love it: Street art open data? What a great way to try to raise awareness of the importance of data literacy and transparency. In addition, how awesome is it to move outside the digital realm and use data to create artifacts that are not necessarily digital. And if there are artists involved? Jer would be so happy to read about this.

3. Greenfield, MA, United States

Their description:

We’re convening a small group to work with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments on a user-friendly way to map private wells in Western Massachusetts…

…Why is it important to map wells?

  • Only about 5% of private wells in Massachusetts are geolocated.
  • Many towns in Western Mass rely 100% on private wells.

Not knowing where our wells are can (and does) lead to water contaminated by nearby septic systems, dumping, and pollutant storage. Aside from the obvious health concerns, there are also financial implications from remediation costs and lowered property values.

Why I love it: Wow, WOW, WOW!!! This is maybe one of the coolest open data day events I’ve ever seen. Here you have a small community focusing on a problem that is real and tangible to them. Moreover, open data could have a direct and meaningful impact on the issue. I love the focus. I love that rallying point. I love the high impact with low resources (their building has minimal heat – so they are advising people to layer up). I wish these crew all the best success and hope to see an update.

4. Nagoya, Japan

Their Description:

Now, highlight of this year is “data of Nagoya Castle!”

The nearly 300 maps and survey drawings of the Nagoya Castle will be made open prior to Open Data Day. The Nagoya Castle office is cooperating with us and has decided that we can use their data for “International Open Data Day.” The references to the image are here.

Why I love it: Well – fill disclosure, my understanding of this event is through the prism of Google translate. But if I understood correctly… there are a few open data events in Japan that have a strong focus on local history which I find totally fascinating. At this event in Nagoya they are bringing in a professor who is an expert in open data as well as expert in the Nagoya castle to talk about the data that is being made open. In addition they are organizing and actual physical tour of the caste. Open Data meets local history buffs!

5. Cairo, Egypt

Their Description:

We will be organizing an online and decentralized event in Cairo, Egypt for the Open Data Day. There are numerous suggested tracks depending on the participants set of expertise:

For translators (المترجمون)

  • Open Data Handbook: The handbook discusses the legal, social and technical aspects of open data. It can be used by anyone but is especially designed for those seeking to open up data. It discusses the why, what and how of open data – why to go open, what open is, and the how to ‘open’ data. Translate it into Arabic here
  • Translate any of the School of Data short tutorials, for example, What is Data?Telling a Story with DataFinding Data, or Any other course/modules

For bloggers (المدونون)

Write blog posts about Open Data related topics and case studies, and don’t forget to use the following hashtag, #ODD2014. Possible ideas for blog posts:

  • Write about the concept of Frictionless Data
  • Case studies how you searched for, extracted and used governmental data
  • Listing of local organizations working or promoting Open Data or advocating for more Transparent and Open Governments

For Developers (مطوري البرامج)

  • Scrape data from capmas and put it into Open Format
  • Scrape data (Budget or the The Financial Monthly Bulletin) from the Minister of Finance and upload it to OpenSpending.org,
  • Create a tool to scrap the traffic data from bey2ollak and put it in an open format.

For Data Wranglers (هواة جمع البيانات)

Why I love it: I love that there are calls to action for a variety of people – including those who have no coding skills at all. How genius is it to organize an event to localize/translate the Open Data handbook? This is something a large number of people could do – and better still can help make open data accessible to a still larger pool of people.

And for the other roles the suggestion of projects – particular with a focus on the national budget and government operations data (capmas) suggests there is a strong civil society presence within the open data community. Will be super interested to see what progress they make and if there is broader interest in their work.

Open Data Day in 110 cities Worldwide! Here’s 6 things to do

It is, as always, with a fair amount of wonder that I watch the open data day wiki grow each year. This year there are 100 self organized events taking place worldwide (at last count). It is an impressive number. This includes events in places like Buenos Aires (which is doing open data street art), Ilorin Nigeria, Kampala Uganda, Barcelona Spain and Aomori Japan to name just a few.

Many of these events have speakers lined up, projects to hack on, seminars and workshops organized. Others are straightforward hackathons and/or unconferences.

If you are heading to an Open Data Day event be sure to take a look at the local events page on the wiki or local website to see what is planned. But if you are looking to get inspired… here are 6+ ideas for what to do on open data day.

1. Use Where Does My Money Go to create a simple visualization of a government budget.

WDMMG Ontario

I love where does my money go. It is just so simple and makes budgets much easier to understand. I persuaded the Ontario Government to use it when it released its budget a few months ago.

The nice part is… it is open source. Check out the code here. No reason why a small team couldn’t fork it and enter in new numbers to visualize the local, regional, state or national budget near where you live!

2. Don’t fixate on an app – fixate on your community

Metro_YVR_Schools2008_20131-533x411Here in Vancouver I’m inviting Andy Yan of the local non-proft BTAWorks to give some opening remarks at our open data day. Why? Because Andy is a legendary user of local open data. And he doesn’t build apps – instead he uses data to better explain Vancouver to Vancouverites.

Andy uses simple mapping software, and even sometimes just plain old excel to take data and analyze it. He’s written about property values in Vancouver (on several occasions), enrolment patters in the city’s public schools, the distribution of coffee houses and books stores in the city and, perhaps most notably, an analysis of the number of empty condos in a city with expensive real estate.

My point with Andy’s work is that you don’t need to create an app to use open data. Indeed, it may not even be a good idea. Rather there is lots to be done just analyzing data or figuring out different ways it may have meaning for the people who live in your city. If you can enable more people to understand an phenomenon or problem that is, in of itself, quite valuable.

3. Find Your People

While Open Data Day has become a “thing” it isn’t an organization or a group. It is just an excuse with some simple rules for a world wide community to mobilize itself at a very local level.

That said there ARE lots of amazing groups out there. And Open Data Day is the perfect day to meet some of them and get involved in the amazing work they are doing. Indeed, groups that use open data have a variety of flavours – so there is often something for everyone. Some of these groups include Hacks and Hackers (journalists and software developers), Open Knowledge Foundation (open data activists), Code for All (civic hackers), Mozilla (open web), the Sunlight Foundation (government transparency), to name but a few. There are also lots of more local and national based groups, as well as industry specific groups such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Often someone at your local event will already be a member of one of these groups – it is a great time to learn more and maybe even join!

4. How to be useful even if you don’t code or can’t use excel

Last year I wrote about three ways anyone can participate in projects on open data day. There is nothing that stops you from creating a keynote/powerpoint that mocks up an idea you have for an analysis or app, or from helping a group document its work so that others can replicate it, or from just going out and finding some useful data that you think might be in the public interest and working with others to get it scraped and made usable.

Indeed what I love about all these examples is that they are paths to learning more. The straight fact is, I can’t code and I have only limited proficiency with something like excel. But I’ve always found ways to make myself useful and in doing so… I have learned so much.

Open Data Day is less about doing than it is about learning, networking and organizing. Ultimately there is nothing stopping you from self organizing a workshop about anything you care about, an issue, a data set, a tool, and asking someone to teach you about and others to learn with you!

5. Go New School – Mobilize a Community to Request a Data Set

Many governments that have open data portals have a “request a data set” option on the page. What an opportunity. If there is a data set that would help bring transparency and accountability to your community… say around environmental pollution, local budget data, contracts and procurement data or arrest rates in a community then why not mobilize local non-profits, stakeholders and even citizens to mount a campaign to “make it open.”

A public campaign that notes the number of people who have “requested” a data set could apply pressure on a government to fulfill its promise to make more data sets open. More importantly, if might giver the community important data by which to challenge public policy or advocate for change.

6. Go Old School – Submit an Access to Information Request

Before there was open data there was… access to information requests. This slow, often cumbersome way of getting government information is critically important. This is because – in places where Access to Information laws exist – they are the only legally backed way to secure government information (and data).

Just learning how to do an access to information can be novel since so few ordinary citizens ever do one. But it many jurisdictions it is your right to be able to do so.

For activists and software developers who are particularly interested in this area of governance/law I encourage you to check out the Alaveteli project started by the amazing team at MySociety. It attempts to bring to add some #opengov tech to the Access to Information world.

I hope this are helpful ideas. More importantly, I hope wherever you are that you have an amazing time on open data day.

 

 

 

So… before there was access to information, there was

What’s in my yogurt

Would you like to know more?

 

 

 

Open Data Day in Vancouver – Registration is live

I’m happy to share that this February 22nd there will be an Open Data Day event in Vancouver. The details are as follows:

The event will take place at Domain7 – who have kindly volunteered their space – on Saturday, February 22, from 10:00 AM to 4:30 PM. We have limited space and want to coordinate lunch so if you want to attend please register here.

We have an exciting day planned – a few opening talks and networking and then a day of hacking, learning and sharing. More details to follow shortly! Very much hope to see you there!

The dangerous mystique of the “open data” business

I’m frequently asked by people about how they can start an “open data business.” Let me first say that I love that the question gets asked. I love that people are interested in Open Data. I love that people want to learn more, they want to play, they want to think of ways of creating a company. These are, in part, signs of how far the open data discussion has come – people see it as a resource that they would like to leverage.

It is, also, the wrong question.

This is not to say there are not businesses that use open data. Indeed, a vast number of companies use open data (anyone company using census data for even a tiny part of their business qualifies). Nor am I denying there aren’t businesses built primarily with open data – the Open Data 500 list demonstrates there are. Plus I get introduced almost daily to businesses that are: both Ajah and OpenCorporates come to mind (I have donated advice, but have no financial connection, with either).

The Trap

But from a founder (or, I suppose, investor) perspective there are dangers to thinking about “open data” as a unique business space.

The danger is in failing to understand there is virtually nothing that distinguishes an open data business from any other business. Any business needs to solve a real (or sadly, at times imagined) problem, it needs to find clients (e.g. people willing to pay for that solution), and it needs to execute on a number of other things at least competently (HR, marketing, management, cashflow, etc…).

The danger with putting the words “open data” before the word “business” is that it risks making people think Open Data businesses are somehow unique. They are not. If there is a gapping chasm between the question of “what can I do with software” and “how can I create a viable software company” there is an equally large gap between “what can I do with open data” and “how can I create a viable company using open data.” And the questions you need to ask yourself to figure out that latter question (many of which are nicely laid out in this book) are independent of whether it is a software, hardware, crafts or open data business.

Indeed open source software space gives us a nice analogy. I suspect few people decide to create an open source software company – they decide to create a company and the software license is a reflection of their strategic options. I think it is the same with open data. You don’t start a company saying “let’s use open data.” You start a company to solve a problem, of which using or publishing open data may be the only, or the most strategic, way of doing this.

The Opportunity 

Some readers may be surprised to see me write this. I am, and continue to be an advocate of open data. But open data is not some magic pixie dust that causes normal business logic to disappear. And it is not that I think people are saying that per se, it is just that I want them to understand that the 99% of the problems that needs to be solved in an “open data business” lie in the third word of that string, and that while the first two do confer some unique advantages and disadvantages, these are relatively trivial.

The real opportunity of open data lies not in the way it creates a new unique type of business, but that it offers a new set of cheap building blocks by which to try to solve problems. In other words it increases the diversity and, lowers the cost of, inputs.

Here again the world of software is instructive. The Economist’s recent survey on Tech Start Ups talks of a Cambrian Explosion because of the availability of “Cheap and ubiquitous building blocks for digital products…” many of which are (and many of which are not) open source. The cheap availability of these building blocks is allowing for a range of experimentation that was previously not possible, or at least, prohibitively expensive.

Open data – whether as an input for software products and services, for analysis (journalistic or corporate) or for scientific research – is cheap (in theory free) and increasingly plentiful. It has the possibility of thus being the equivalent of the cheap code that is powering a great deal of experimentation in the world of software. As an open data advocate the possibility of this increased experimentation has me excited.

Conclusion

So if you are thinking about starting an open data business – that is great! I’m excited to hear that and I am keen to help and be supportive. But focus on that third word – business. That’s the one that really matters.

From a data perspective you should be asking yourself – what real tangible pain does doing something with this data set help me solve that was previously only possible with a more expensive input (e.g. proprietary data) or not possible at all. The second is to think of the impact of using open data on your strategy. Where does it leave you more vulnerable (too copy cats or the whims of the data publisher) and where does it leave you stronger (if the data is commoditized then the axis of competition will lie in other parts of the business).

I hope this is a helpful nuance to the issue of open data businesses, and some helpful input for those looking at open data and thinking about to find business opportunities in it.