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What Is Open Data?

What is open data - 0

Any data or content that is free to use and distributed falls under the idea of open data. Let's dive deeper and answer this question: what is open data?

Brand content manager, Opendatasoft
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Open data is digital information that is licensed in a way that it is available to anyone, with just a few stipulations. The data is typically either public, open, or attributed. Any data or content that is free to use and distributed falls under the idea of open data. Let’s dive deeper and answer this question: what is open data?

The philosophy behind open data is the scientific method that builds upon existing research to develop breakthroughs that ultimately help people and the planet we share.

Examples of open data include the following:

  1. Government financial data
  2. The stock information you see scrolling on your newsfeed.
  3. Market data statistics that you can access via a search engine.
  4. Published academic research.

In contrast, closed data often restricts usage, tying it to licensure due to security or privacy considerations. An example of closed data could include financial information that can only be accessed by the owner. This could include consumer sales data specific to a for-profit company or other consumer or corporate information that is deemed “sensitive.”

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Technology has allowed us to capture data in ways and in volumes that many of us never imagined. Increasingly sophisticated data analytics tools allow us to parse data in new ways to discover trends and findings that have shaped crucial business decisions. These tools allow us to see connections between data that have never been explored.

There is a growing debate about who should control this data; the corporations and governments who collect it, or the public that benefits from it?

To put it another way, knowledge is power. Sharing knowledge allows the dispersal of power in a way that benefits the many, not the few. That is the philosophical underpinning behind the concept of open data.

So what are some of the most common benefits of open data?

1. Accountability

Open data can allow shareholders to understand corporate-level decision-making. It can help citizens see how their tax dollars are impacting city infrastructure improvements. Financial and ethical transparency in government empowers democracy. Open data fosters accountability across corporations, cultures, and countries.

2. Empowerment

Open data can allow individuals to conduct their own research leading to behavioral changes that improve their health. The open data found on the internet has been an incredible tool to educate and empower consumer-buying patterns. Access to open data impacts personal decision-making by empowering individuals to gather all the facts before taking an action.

3. Impact measurement

Open data allows policymakers to understand the impact of their decisions. It can help marketers discern sales patterns that allow them to adjust business strategies to accommodate new trends. It can also proactively influence future planning decisions by measuring historical trends, impacting everything from disaster preparedness to interest rates.

4. Scientific and technological advancement

The scientific method hinges upon developing a hypothesis, then testing various concepts to prove or disprove the theory. Each experiment becomes data that fuels the research to follow. Science and technology breakthroughs too numerous to mention are the result of this gradual building of knowledge based upon shared research.

In technology, open data is being used by entrepreneurs to build businesses, like Development Seed, that uses open data APIs to solve engineering problems. Or the Open Bank Project that creates the open source APIs for banks to use.

Clearly, everyone from citizens to civil servants, researchers and entrepreneurs can benefit from open data. But how does it differ from closed data?


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All data rests on a scale between closed and open because there are variances in how information is shared between the two points in the continuum. Closed data might be shared with specific individuals within a corporate setting. Open data may require attribution to the contributing source, but still be completely available to the end user.

Generally, accepted practice suggests that open data differs from closed data in three key ways:

  1. Open data is accessible, usually via a data warehouse on the internet.
  2. It is available in a readable format.
  3. It’s licensed as open source, which allows anyone to use the data or share it for non-commercial or commercial gain.

Closed data restricts access to the information in several potential ways:

  1. It is only available to certain individuals within an organization.
  2. The data is patented or proprietary.
  3. The data is semi-restricted to certain groups.
  4. Data that is open to the public through a licensure fee or other pre-requisite.
  5. Data that is difficult to access, such as paper records that haven’t been digitized.

The perfect example of closed data could be information that requires a security clearance; health-related information collected by a hospital or insurance carrier; or, on a smaller scale, your own personal tax returns.

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Data fuels innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. Proponents of open data say that access to information is key to an evolving society. Open data can help citizens hold their government accountable. It can also hold the key to solving some of our most challenging planetary problems such as climate change and pollution or poverty and famine.

Companies, governments or communities can leverage open data to create new services or products. Open data benefits non- and for-profit entities, as well as the economy and individuals. Here are some of the entities that are currently benefiting by leveraging open data.

1. Cultural

Museums, libraries, and archives have now digitized important cultural artifacts and stored them on the web as open data. These efforts support scientific discourse and educate populations on our most treasured historic cultural data.

2. Environmental

Open data is being used to monitor and conserve Europe’s wetlands and the biodiversity within these fragile environments in a project called LifeWatch, which brings together data collected across eight European countries.

In the United States, Oregon State University is using open data to track sea level changes on the west coast. The Chesapeake Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Project recently released open data from their project to track how pollution is affecting the plants, animals, and people, surrounding this natural resource.

3. Finance and Banking

Open data can help financial institutions use predictive analysis to prepare for market fluctuations. They can use statistics to shift product offerings to accommodate demographic trends and changes in customer preferences. Open data can also help detect and stop fraudulent activity more quickly. One example of open data in this industry is Fannie Mae’s publication of loan data from 700,000 single-family loans in 2010. The data was released to help investors understand the performance of the agency’s securities.

4. Government

In government, data transparency is increasingly an issue. Activists clamor for more information on everything from the personal finances of presidential candidates to an accounting of how tax dollars are spent. Open data allows civic agencies to communicate more effectively with citizens, potentially reinforcing the concept of a government “by the people and for the people.”

Some forward-thinking civic administrators have embraced the concept of open data. In Raleigh, North Carolina, city and county officials came together to create the Durham Open Data Portal, a web portal with community-relevant data impacting education, crime, finance, transportation, public health, and more. Citizens can now access open data via a web portal that includes easy-to-use dashboards, interactive maps, and a searchable data index. Durham lawmakers say the portal has increased community engagement in government decision-making, fostering open communication between government and the people they serve.

On a larger scale, in 2013, the U.S. and other G7 leaders created the Open Data Charter to create accessible and transparent government data. Data can be used to promote accountability, increase efficiency, and foster scientific and private sector innovation.

5. Research and Science

We’ve discussed how open data used in the scientific method builds upon prior research to create medical, environmental, or technology innovation. But the concept of open data is being applied to actually eliminate research bottlenecks that are slowing down Alzheimer’s research. Pharmacog is a partnership of 32 industry and academic organizations across seven countries that share data and accelerate the pace of research leading to a cure.

6. Technology

In the tech world, some of the latest software innovations are tied to open data. Tech start-up OpenSensors.io is an Internet of Things provider that links sensory hardware through the Internet to a business. OpenSensors uses open data to help businesses connect.

Open data projects like these are exploding in the tech world, fostering the open exchange of information, collaboration and community-focused development.

In the same way that the research community has built layers of research to cure illness, the tech sector is using open data to encourage advances in everything from phone apps to virtual reality.


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The evolution of technology has allowed an exponential explosion of open data accessed by our digital devices. The information age is transitioning to the knowledge economy, as more businesses take advantage of consumer data to drive business growth. In these instances, knowledge is, literally, wealth, as improvements in data analytics allows us to discern patterns of behavior. Entrepreneurs then leverage the open data to create products and services for financial gain. McKinsey suggests the economic impact of open data ranges from $3 to $5 trillion annually.

Open data is a living entity, constantly evolving in real-time. So, too, are the benefits of utilizing open data, as increasingly sophisticated data analytics tools allow us to take big data and draw new conclusions to shape our world. We know that the open sharing of data between corporations, researchers, marketers, and governments lead to innovation in all these sectors. This clearly illustrates the value and importance of open data in the future.

Opendatasoft believes in the power of open data. Our data sharing platform helps government agencies and other organizations organize and communicate data with the communities they serve.

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