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.

some readings on open data

I’ve been thinking about open data a lot this summer. Partly this is because I have a longstanding interest in transparency and government information, so I’m kind of always thinking about that sort of thing, but also because I’ve been following the wide-ranging conversation on open data that Tom Slee started back in May with a couple of blog posts: “Why the “Open Data Movement” is a Joke” and a lengthier follow-up, “Open Data Movement Redux: Tribes and Contradictions.” As you can probably guess from the titles, these posts were provocative – mostly in a good way, I thought – and generated a lot of discussion within the open data community.

Now, I should say up front that I’m going to leave my thoughts on the issues that Slee and others raised for a later post. This post is just a place for me to gather together links to what I’ve read recently on open data that I think others might be interested in. I started out intending to write just one post but the list of links to background readings got so unwieldy that I figured it would be better if I separated it out. The list is in a loose sort of chronological order, starting with Slee’s first two posts and some of the works he cites, then continuing on from there.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read everything Slee cited or every response to his posts. I’m sure I’ve left out some good stuff. Suggestions are welcome.

Starting the conversation

Tom Slee. “Why the “Open Data Movement” is a Joke“, Whimsley (1 May 2012)

____. “Open Data Movement Redux: Tribes and Contradictions“, Whimsley (8 May 2012)

Additional background (a.k.a “footnotes I followed from Slee’s posts”)

Jo Bates. “‘This is what modern deregulation looks like’ : co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data Initiative.The Journal of Community Informatics (April 2012)

Michael Gurstein. “Open Data: Empowering the Empowered or Effective Data Use for Everyone?“, Gurstein’s Community Informatics, Volume 8 Number 2 (2 September 2010)

____. “Open Data (2): Effective Data Use“, Gurstein’s Community Informatics (9 September 2010)

[Gurstein later revised these posts into: “Open data: Empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone?“, First Monday, Volume 16 Number 2 (23 January 2011)]

Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson. “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government‘”, SSRN (28 February 2012)

Early responses

In addition to the comments on Slee’s two posts, I found the following posts particularly worth reading. Both were written in response to Slee’s first post.

David Eaves. “Open Data Movement a Joke?“, (2 May 2012)

Tom Lee. “Defending the Big Tent: Open Data, Inclusivity and Activism“, Sunlight Foundation Blog (2 May 2012)

Crooked Timber forum on open data

Following this first round of discussion, the conversation then shifted over to Crooked Timber, which ran a seminar on open data in late June/early July. Since Henry Farrell has already put together a page with links to all nine contributions, I’ll just link to that page instead of writing out every link. Slee wrote the lead post and the other contributors were Victoria Stodden, Steven Berlin Johnson, Matthew Yglesias, Clay Shirky, Aaron Swartz, Henry Farrell, Beth Noveck, and Tom Lee.

In addition to the seminar posts, I also recommend:

David Eaves. “Unstructured Thinking on Open Data: A response to Tom Slee“, (28 June 2012)

John Wonderlich. “Open Data Creates Accountability“, Sunlight Foundation Blog (6 July 2012)

As I said above, this list is not comprehensive; it’s just the subset of the larger conversation that I’ve happened to have read so far. But I think it’s a decent place to get started.