Laura James on Open Data, Source and Knowledge

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Dr Laura James

Dr Laura James, foundation coordinator of the Open Knowledge Foundation

What is open data? asks Dr James. They have the Open Definition. Open data is open. You can use it whatever organisation you’re in. Data? Not personal data. There shouldn’t be any personal privacy issues (most of the time).

We have lots of data, and powerful IT systems. To many eyes, all data problems will be fixed. Data needs to be open to be interwoven. It doesn’t need to be semantic – it can be – but it does need to be well enough described to weave it with other information. You’ll need a range of skills: developers, designers, ethnographers, to get the most from the data. But open data means we can scale.

We’re in really early days for this. It’s still new in government – it’s barely heard of in business. There are whole new sets of activities – like data wrangling – that bring new costs. Many of those costs are because we’re retrofitting open onto existing data.

This is scary disruption. We get to experiment, take risks and occasionally succeed.

Open data leads to more sustainable cities. You understand more about what’s happening – so it’s easier to get all kinds of organisations to work together to solve the problems.  Who can make the city data useful to people? Startups, SMEs, schools, arts groups, libraries – open data brings them all together. The UK government now shares transactions over £25k monthly. Before they released this data, civil servants couldn’t access it. Now they can – so civil servants can see where better deals are to be had.

But it’s not a magic potion. It’s got to be used  – it needs individuals and organisations to build apps and services to allow it to be accessed and used. We need to collect advice around using it. And if it’s open data – you want open tools. And that means open source software. Select a robust open source software project, and you have a sustainable project. You don’t need to worry about a propriety vendor putting up prices or going bust. The code is free – services probably won’t be. That’s fine. Pay more, get better service.

We went from hand-writing html to content management systems, like WordPress. Now we need to go from hand-managed data to data management systems. And there will be a whole range of them, from propriety to open source, from basic to expert. They’ll allow management, analysis, proven ace checking, data cleaning… They’ll be used right through the lifespan of that data.

CKAN – an open data management system. What’s it good for? Sharing, finding and using data. For example –, dataGM.orgmentioned earlier – was built on it. And it’s not just the Open Knowledge Foundation – you can download it yourself, work with other partners, etc.

Opening data can be good for your organisation. had a lot of downtime when they first launched – and the treasury kept phoning to complain. It was the best way of accessing their own information…

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.