4th IODC

Blog IODC 2016
Madrid. October 6-7, 2016


A guest post from Ahmed T Rashid and Laura Husak reflecting on the panel on “The Future of Open Data”

In many respects, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Chairman of the Open Data Institute, and Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board of Canada, looked back in history to demonstrate how open data can become a key pillar for future social and economic prosperity. For one thing, media across the world is taking more note of the potential of open data.  Alex Howard, who moderated the panel, was the only journalist covering the first Open Data Conference held in Washington D.C. in 2010. This year’s conference not only had a much wider media coverage, but provided ample evidence of the traction open data is having in governments and civil society. The challenge ahead for proponents of open data is to convince others, including new governments, policymakers and citizens, of the value of open data.
Sir Nigel Shadbolt cited Danish physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr who argued in the 1950s that societies and democracies are better off with more openness, not less.  It is only now that we are witnessing concrete examples that support Bohr’s argument:

  • In the aftermath of Nepal’s earthquake in May 2015, 4,000 volunteers mapped 20,000 km of road in 48 hours in Kathmandu using OpenStreetMap, an online, open global mapping platform
  • In the U.K, data on mortality rates is used to gauge hospital preparedness and service (avoid falling sick in the weekend!)
  • opencorporates shares information about companies, currently listing 55 million companies from around the world

Open by default

What about the role of open governments? Tony Clement, the Minister responsible for Canada’s open data efforts, described the push to open up government information a revolution in thought and action.  Minister Clement underscored the federal government’s commitment to pro-actively disclose and make information available to citizens.

Some key initiatives include:

  • The open.canada.ca website gives user access to federal datasets under open government license
  • Canadian Open Data Exchange is a public-private collaboration to promote commercialization of open data in Canada
  • Open Data Canada serves as a platform to be used at any level of government, including common standards and open licenses to create a roadmap for openness and innovation

“It is not a done deal”

Sir Nigel Shadbolt reminded us that open data still has a long way to go.  The open data movement must take on key challenges of setting data standards, practices, and building trust, in order to move forward.  Alex Howard raised a fundamental issue that discussions on open data often evoke: how will open data alter the relationship between citizens and the state?  Do we know all the unintended consequences of opening up data, such as breach of privacy?

The panel agreed that when it comes to open data there is a need to maintain a delicate balance between “public” and “private” interests.  The open data movement must be aware of the constantly evolving social norms and regulations on rights, so that open data works as a tool for citizen empowerment.

Another key challenge mentioned by Sir Nigel in the UK is a lack of coordination of open data efforts at various levels of government that make the integration and comparison of data challenging.  Minister Clement argued that there is a need to make open data “as liquid as possible”, so that it can spread seamlessly without geographical and administrative barriers. Related to this point is the need for a technologically advanced infrastructure to sustain open data efforts.

Finally, there is a lack of trained staff to take full advantage of economic and social opportunities afforded by open data.  Developing countries in particular lack data analysts and statistical agencies with the resources to translate data into economic opportunities.  Important initiatives such as the Open Data for Development Program, which aims to scale innovative open data approaches to benefit citizens in developing countries, will go a long way to address this problem.


The future of open data is “now”

Open data is more than just a product, it is an infrastructure, which must be available in high quality, accessible, and maintained. Never before in history has this idea of making information accessible, readable and collaborative been a possibility like it is now. Open data has come a long way in a relatively short time period. The goalpost is constantly shifting, however.  More than ever, there is a need for greater collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders to solidify the gains and keep the momentum.  We are at the beginning of something big.  As Minister Clement said, this conference has the potential to be the moment when open data closes the distance between citizens, communities, and countries.


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