Open Data Purists vs Open Data Pragmatists

When it comes to opening data, what’s the best angle to aim for? In this post, our Chief Data Officer takles the merits of Open Data pragmatists over those of Open Data purists.

When we recently published Open Data Inception, a list of 2500+ Open Data portals gathered from multiple sources, most of the reactions were very positive and the website went viral in the Open Data ecosystem.

Too many Open Data portals?

While we had an overwhelming number of responses, this one in particular caught my attention:

#toomanydataportals really?

Why would having a lot of different Open Data portals be a problem? I don’t think that the internet would be cool with one single website, but some think that one unique portal would be.

I really don’t want to extrapolate on one single hashtag, nor on one single tweet whose author I don’t know. However, it does echo a larger and growing tension in the Open Data ecosystem. I believe we are entering an era defined by an antagonism between Open Data purists and Open Data pragmatists. And this era may be decisive in the future of Open Data.

‘To some visionary pioneers, such as Ted Nelson, who had been developing a purist hypertext paradigm called Xanadu for decades, the browser represented an undesirably messy direction for the evolution of the Internet. To pragmatists, the browser represented important software evolving as it should: in a pluralistic way, embodying many contending ideas, through what the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) calls “rough consensus and running code.” ’ Venkatesh Rao

The purists vs pragmatists opposition is a classic in the evolution of technology. In Season 1 of Breaking Smart, Venkatesh Rao reminds us that from UNIX to the browser, computer history is not made by purists. Web guidelines and good practices have been established only because there has been a decade of ugly-blinking-usingflash-lagging-vulnerable-handmade websites. It’s because such an amazing number of people have created their own websites and measured and adapted to their users’ behaviors that we now know that cyan text on a black background is not a good idea. It’s thanks to all of these individuals that a logo on the top left of a page must link to the homepage. It’s because so many developers made ugly codebases, mixing HTML, CSS, and javascript that web frameworks like RubyOnRails, Django, and Symfony have emerged, leading to still an easier market access.

Open Data purists vs Open Data Pragmatists

Open Data is on the same path

Open Data is much younger; it hasn’t been a decade since the legendary Tim Berners-Lee called for raw, Open Data.

In just a few years, we went from pioneering administrations releasing tabular data files through basic CMS to a large and ever-growing ecosystem of organizations (ranging from small to international in scale, private companies, and non-profits) inventing new ways to share data each and every day.

I love that there are many different ways to Open Data, that there are many different actors, and that there are both open source and proprietary projects. I love that people with few technical skills in small cities are able to empower citizens with new data through well-designed interfaces, and that they are making their own choices at every step. I love the growing power of non-technical individuals in the process of releasing data. It is only by having more actors that Open Data will grow as a whole, and will be brought to more and more people.

Experts, who have fought for Open Data since the beginning, have a natural tendency to be purists, perhaps even conservative. They must learn not to abdicate, but to accept that there are be many natural changes and evolutions to come in the Open Data ecosystem; there will be more profiles, there will be different and sometimes not-so-open licenses. These purists must learn to defend their vision of Open Data without pulling the brakes on the developing movement.

There is still a growing plurality of websites, the model is still quite robust. Since we still need to find them, there are currently platforms available allowing us to search, bookmark or share websites: Google, Facebook, Twitter, your browser. I’m highly confident that some apps, some platforms will address the same need for data. The more data are available, the more it will become necessary to be able to quickly find them, collect them and share them. It won’t be via one Open Data portal, but through some new or adapted layers. It is this very topic that will be the subject of my next article. Stay tuned!

This article was first published on Medium.


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