What is open data?

Open data often refers to government information which has been made available for free for anyone to use. However, also companies, other organizations and citizens publish open data. The openness of data means in practice that data has been made as easy as possible for anyone to use. The level of openness can vary in different aspects. The most important ones are technical accessibility, free access, reuse permitting licensing, findability and understandability. The more the use of data is restricted, on purpose or accidentally, the less open it is.

Principles of open data

Principles of open data: public information, machine readable, licensed and free of charge.
Picture: Marker Wizards.
  • Public domain: The data has to be public information in order for it to be opened for public use. Sensitive or otherwise compromising information cannot be published due to the protection of individuals’ rights for privacy and the general safety of the society.
  • Technical accessibility: Data has been published in a format which computer programs can understand and which makes it easy to use in the development of new web services. Information in PDF documents or on most HTML web pages is often hard to use in derivative works. In a sense the information stays locked inside the document. Publishing data in CSV or XLS formats or giving access to the original data source through an application programming interface (API) are better solutions.
  • Free access: Data can be accessed without costs. Free access is especially important for people exploring a data source for the first time. Free access enables experimentation with data without the need for budget bureaucracy.
  • Reuse permitting licensing: The publisher permits reuse and clearly expresses it in a license accompanying the data. Otherwise finding out the terms of use can be so laborious that data is left unused.
  • Findability: The existence and location of a data source should be publicly known. Publishing data in a public data catalog is a good way to improve findability.
  • Understandability: The structure and the meaning of the data in question has been described and documented. If not described data can not be interpreted and remains useless.

Why open data?

Information is a resource which never wears out. It is said that information becomes more valuable if it is used. It supports learning, decision making processes and the intelligent use of other resources. Often, information and the benefits of using it are available only for few people. Open data makes it easier to use information wherever it is needed. Government agencies in Finland produce constantly large amounts of data which could be used more outside government. Especially since the quality of information systems in Finland is high.

Making information available as open data decreases friction in using it. The aim is to provide more data in a suitable format for the society at large wherever information is needed.

Sharing of government information as open data without cost benefits individuals, communities, companies and the whole society.

Benefits of open data

Transparency and democracy: Open data supports active citizenship, research and journalism by increasing transparency. For example, it facilitates discussions in social media by making it easier to reference to government information.

Business and innovation: Giving access to government data for free is good for companies. It breeds new markets and supports innovation. For example, new ways to use information have many times been found by people who have a different educational background compared to the usual users.

Government efficiency: Increasing data openness makes it easier to use for other government agencies, too. Harmonizing information management practices brings economies of scale and makes knowledge transfer between organizations easier. Open data may also help in finding practices where the potential of digital information hasn’t yet been realized.

Open data internationally

Opening government data started in the United States and Britain and has now spread to most industrialized countries. Open data is a philosophy in which the collaboration between the public sector, citizens, web developers and other users is nurtured and made more efficient to produce greater common good.

There are hundreds of open data portals all over the world. In Europe the European Data Portal harvests the metadata on public data portals across the European countries. The metadata regarding Finland is harvested from the national open data portal Avoindata.fi.

Tim Berners-Lee: The next web at TED2009.