The unmet potential of open data

Essay by Jane Bambauer: “Open Data holds great promise — and more than thought leaders appreciate. 

Open access to data can lead to a much richer and more diverse range of research and development, hastening innovation. That’s why scientific journals are asking authors to make their data available, why governments are making publicly held records open by default, and why even private companies provide subsets of their data for general research use. Facebook, for example, launched an effort to provide research data that could be used to study the impact of social networks on election outcomes. 

Yet none of these moves have significantly changed the landscape. Because of lingering skepticism and some legitimate anxieties, we have not yet democratized access to Big Data.

There are a few well-trodden explanations for this failure — or this tragedy of the anti-commons — but none should dissuade us from pushing forward….

Finally, creating the infrastructure required to clean data, link it to other data sources, and make it useful for the most valuable research questions will not happen without a significant investment from somebody, be it the government or a private foundation. As Stefaan Verhulst, Andrew Zahuranec, and Andrew Young have explained, creating a useful data commons requires much more infrastructure and cultural buy-in than one might think. 

From my perspective, however, the greatest impediment to the open data movement has been a lack of vision within the intelligentsia. Outside a few domains like public health, intellectuals continue to traffic in and thrive on anecdotes and narratives. They have not perceived or fully embraced how access to broad and highly diverse data could radically change newsgathering (we could observe purchasing or social media data in real time), market competition (imagine designing a new robot using data collected from Uber’s autonomous cars), and responsive government (we could directly test claims of cause and effect related to highly salient issues during election time). 

With a quiet accumulation of use cases and increasing competence in handling and digesting data, we will eventually reach a tipping point where the appetite for more useful research data will outweigh the concerns and inertia that have bogged down progress in the open data movement…(More)”.