[okfn-discuss] Open Data: a means to an end, not an end in itself

Rufus Pollock rufus.pollock at okfn.org
Fri Sep 16 09:33:00 UTC 2011

Hi All,

I've just posted up a new post on the OKFN blog:


I've also inlined it below. Any comments or feedback either on the
blog or here on list are very welcome :-)


## Open Data: a means to an end, not an end in itself

In almost all the talks I give about open data or content, I aim, at
least once, to make the statement along the lines:

*"Openness for data and content is **not** an end in itself, it's a
means to an end"*

This, of course, begs the question: if open data is a *means* and not
an *end in itself*, what are the *real ends* that we are seeking?

The *real ends* are the improved creation, processing and use
information for the purpose of bettering our lives and the world
around us -- finding a better way to travel to work, understanding and
addressing climate change, finding better ways to cure and prevent
disease, deciding who to vote for, the list goes on and on because it
includes almost anything where information, and more specifically
digital information is or could be important.

Now, there are many things that contribute to us improving the
"creation, processing and use of information" but the following are
especially important (and interlink):

  1. Scalability -- i.e. dealing with larger and larger amounts of information
  2. Improved tools, techniques and process for handling that information
  3. Wide access to the raw data and content

(I'd also add a fourth item: to create, process and use information in
a collaborative, distributed and decentralized manner that puts
'information power' -- the power to access, understand and utilize
information -- in the hands of the many rather than concentrating it
in the hands of the few. However, I have left this out as it could be
argued that this is not a requirement for improvement but an
additional, and separate, desiderata.)

It is at this point that openness enters: openness -- both of data and
of tools -- is central to making rapid progress in each of these

  1. Scalability: successful 'data scaling' requires componentization
-- the breaking up material into maintainable chunks (components) that
can be recombined. However, without openness componentization cannot
function because the recombination of components will rapidly become
impossible due to the need to check and clear rights with so many
different sources of data (and incompatibilities between the
conditions imposed by different sources).

  2. Tools, technique and process. Open data makes it much easier to
develop and share tools, techniques and processes for working with
data. Moreover, without open data the application of those tools can
be severely limited.

  3. Wider access to the material: given the vast amount of material
becoming available we're going to want as many people as possible (and
not just 'professionals') to be able to access, experiment with and
redistribute that data as easily as possible. Remember the many minds
principle: the best thing to do with your data will be though of by
someone else.

### Summing Up

Open data, then, is a means to an end not an end in itself. **Openness
is important to the extent it helps us do something "useful" -- not
because it is valuable in and of itself.**

I think it's important to emphasize this point because as the open
data movement grows, we need to be clear that **open data is not some
magic potion** that, on its own, will automatically solve problems.
Fundamentally, **to be useful data (open or otherwise) needs to be
used: it needs individuals and institutions to analyze it and to act
on that analysis, it needs companies and communities to build apps and
services with it, and it needs tools and processes developed to
facilitate doing those activities.**

This is **not to underestimate the value of openness**: as argued
above, it *is* central to making significant progress in "doing useful
stuff", but we must also **avoid the trap of confusing means with
ends, and thereby neglecting the many other changes that are needed if
open data is to deliver full value**.

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