Think about governments and data and your mind likely turns to secrecy, surveillance, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning. And it’s true: as long as we’ve had governments they’ve gathered data on us, and lots of it. Now a newish movement — starting in the late 2000s and gaining momentum over recent years — is pushing for governments around the world to open up access to that data. This, of course, raises questions about who actually owns that data — and the implications of what happens when the information is made public. TED Fellow Yale Fox, creator of a consumer search engine that uses city government data to rate landlords and rental properties, explains why open data matters so much.
Open government data means making information contained in databases freely available to businesses and people.“The term evolved out of the open source movement that makes software source code open and free to modify and distribute,” says Fox. “Opengovernmentdata means making information contained in government databases freely available to businesses and people.” Government databases are generally created for public benefit using taxpayer money, so advocates argue that the information in these databases belongs in the public domain. The important shift is that it’s only with recent technological advances that it has even become possible to organize, aggregate, analyze and share that data quickly and efficiently.
The journey to opening government data.Decades before the term “open data” emerged, the scientific community had recognized the knowledge-building benefits of sharing research results. Intending to translate this principle into the realm of government data, 30 internet thinkers and activists gathered in Sebastopol, California, in December 2007 to hammer out theprinciplesof how government could make its data available. Among them were Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, the late free-knowledge activist Aaron Swartz and open source advocate Tim O’Reilly. The group’s conclusion: this data should be complete, primary, timely, accessible, machine-processable, nondiscriminatory, nonproprietary and license-free.
In 2009, on his first day in office, President Obama issued a memo on transparency and open government, leading to the creation of data.gov, which aims to improve public access to certain machine-readable datasets generated by the executive branch of the federal government. As of August 2016, that repository had grown to include over 180,000 sets of data — helped in part by theUS Open Government Directive, which required all federal agencies to post at least three high-value datasets. But the movement isn’t just gaining momentum in the US — worldwide, more than 50 countries now haveopen data initiatives.
How open data can improve healthcare. Okay, so far, so open. But what can anyone actuallydowith open data? Well, a lot. “Individual citizens and the private sector can use open data as raw material to improve existing government services, create alternative services and empower consumers,” says Fox. For instance, in 2014,Centers for Medicare and Medicaid ServiceslaunchedOpen Payments, a publicly searchable website offering data on the financial relationships of doctors and health care manufacturers — so you can find out if your physician has received any fees for, say, research or speaking engagements from a pharmaceutical company.