This memorable quote by the great English physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton defines his research philosophy. Newton believed that scientific progress can happen only if research by individual intellectuals is pooled together in a common pot for everyone to access and take it further.
The same idea was voiced in a seminal thesis by American sociologist Robert King Merton, when he said that the results from research studies must be accessible and available to all. Newton and Merton, then, were some of the earliest proponents of the movement called "Open Access."
The basis for open access, open data, is an important aspect of scientific advancement. The World Data Center system , created to provide people with access to data collected from the observational programs of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958), was probably the first example of an open access system.
The subsequent opening of the internet for commercial use gave a renewed impetus to this goal of making data freely available for everyone without restrictions like copyrights and patents.
Criticism of the open data concept
While a strong case has existed for the use of open data, to empower common citizens, there have also been criticisms and concerns about this same concept.
Skeptics often wonder, for example, just how open data reaches the average citizen. The majority of internet users may not even be able to use the “machine-readable” open datasets governments and organizations provide. So, how is the average individual empowered? This is a valid concern.
The open data community should keep in mind that it may be curtailing the average person's right to information when it obtains open data from governments and other organizations and that data remains incomprehensible.
Open data and public empowerment
It is logical, then, to put open data into a context that is easily usable and understood by laypeople. And, accordingly, there have been efforts to provide open data in formats that people can use and make sense of. Those formats are the path to true empowerment.
Technological pioneers of open data are using information from government and civic society organizations’ open-data initiatives to create user-friendly tools . These tools can help people by alerting them to imminent emergencies, like an impending flood-like situation, or by delivering comprehensive demographic data on important social topics.
Open data is also helping smart cities plan their urban infrastructure.