some thoughts on open data (1): movements and communities

Back in May Tom Slee started what turned out to be a really interesting conversation on open government data when he wrote a couple of blog posts that were fairly critical of the open data movement as seen from the perspective of progressive politics. The thread then got picked up by Crooked Timber, which ran a seminar on open data in late June/early July. The conversation pulled in a number of open data advocates and critics, and I guess it got a bit heated at times, but I found the whole thing helpful in drawing out a lot of the things people should think about when thinking about open data.  If you missed the discussion and are interested in reading more, I put up a whole bunch of links in my last post.

I meant to write some comments of my own while the discussion was still going, but various things came up and I’m finally just now getting back to it. The conversation was broad enough that it would be impossible to respond to everything; besides, I’m still at a “gathering my thoughts” stage about all of this. So what I’m going to try to do in this series of posts is just pull out some of the more salient points that came up about open data, and then add a few of my own comments. I’m numbering the posts, but just for convenience – I’m coming up with the order as I go.

1. Movements and communities

One point of dispute was whether the “open data movement” can really be considered a movement – in the sense of having a unified goal or goals – or if, as Slee argues, there are just too many different groups and individuals involved, representing too many different goals and interests for it to be considered just one thing. If pressed, I’d probably shy away from using the term “movement” to describe the broader phenomenon, but for now I’m just going to sidestep the issue. Like some other commenters, I’m not sure how important it is to come to a strict conclusion on this point.

I do think that you can, arguably, identify an open data community. Now, you might object, didn’t I just substitute one seemingly-precise-but-not-strictly-defined term (“community”) for another (“movement”)? It’s a valid question. I just find the concept of a community more helpful in thinking about open data advocates. Different groups might have different ultimate goals and interests beyond their open data work, but while they’re working on open data, they generally seem to use similar language and to have similar needs. This still could prove to be a rather transient community as people move on to other things, but they’re neighbors while in town.

Or maybe that’s still a too simplified way of looking at things. Most of the discussion of open data I’ve been referring to has been about open government data: data collected, produced, and disseminated by government bodies at any jurisdictional levels. But that’s just one category of data that could be made more open.

I can think of a few others: there’s the open access movement, which centers on academic research. It isn’t just about data, but it includes a call for open access to the data produced/collected as part of research activities. Some of this data comes from studies that have received government funding, but it’s not really government data in the sense of census data. A second example would be LODLAM – linked open data in libraries, archives, and museums. Again, many of these institutions are public, but this also doesn’t really fall into the government data category as conventionally understood.

While there are probably some people who are working on all of these types of data at once, it would be hard to say that there’s just one large community that includes everything under these umbrellas. So it might be more accurate to think of multiple open data communities, each with points in common with the others but working in different domains.

One final note: I’ve been reading Crooked Timber for years and I got the impression that the open data seminar didn’t generate as much activity in the comment threads as some other topics have in the past. Now, I could just be mistaken about the comment volume, but I did feel like there was a real mismatch on some posts between the level of engagement of the posters and that of the commenters. (However, a few posts got a lot of comments, like Slee’s “Seeing Like a Geek“.) This impression is another reason I think it would be possible to identify an open data community: within it, people are eager to talk, debate, share ideas, but outside of it the level of interest is apparently much lower. Or maybe this was just a result of the seminar being held during the mid-summer holiday season.

Next post [not written yet]: government information and information about government.