Friday, November 06, 2015

Economic value should be a benefit, but not the reason for open data

I've been reading various views and reflecting on the DataStart competition.

There's a shift I've been observing in how some people in government talk about open data that is making me quite uncomfortable.

I like that the commercial world is finally taking note of the value of open data and the prospect to build businesses using it.

I like that corporations are beginning to adopt some of the techniques of openness pioneered in the public sector and use them to build usability, value and (hopefully) profits.

I like that the government is taking a firm position on innovation and has finally begun to realise that Australia needs to have a strong and effective digital strategy with senior leadership to remain a relevant first world nation in a world increasingly built on data.

However there's one thing that does concern me.

There's been a progressive shift in language from certain government levels that suggests that the primary reason for releasing public sector information in open, reusable formats is for economic benefit.

Other benefits, such as the ability to hold government to account, improve policy development and assessment and the social benefits of open data in areas such as health, emergency management, education and employment, have been downplayed or ignored.

We've seen hackathons run in Australia on government data for six years now, with over 1,500 web services and apps developed by teams.

The vast majority of these apps and sites focused on social, policy or accountability benefits - very few were developed specifically with economic goals, even in competition categories focused on entrepreneurship.

These competitions have showcased a wide variety of benefits for open data, and agencies have, for the most part, heard this. However the language from the top of government is all about commercialisation and creating businesses from data, the other benefits ignored.

Exemplifying this trend, the DataStart competition doesn't specifically exclude non-commercial entrants, however there's no cash prize at the end for any such winner, the $200,000 investment package prize is restricted to those entrants who squeeze out a commercially viable business (as defined by RightClick Capital and Polleniser).

Other entrants can get, at best, some support from the Department and maybe a five-day start-up bootcamp in Sydney.

The message being sent is clear - non-commercial ideas for open data need not apply.

Essentially the DataStart competition puts the economic benefit of open data ahead of any other benefit - and again this isn't a bad thing. There's reason to support the commercial value of open data, just as there's reason to support the social and policy value of this data.

What is concerning is that the message from government is shifting towards making this economic benefit the main reason for opening up, or improving the quality, of government data.

This could lead into a situation where the data prioritised for collection, cleaning and open release is the data with commercial value, over data that has accountability or social value to Australia.

It attaches a price signal to open data - it must be commercially valuable, or it's not valued.

This flies against the spirit and full value of open government data.

I hope that we do not see governments making commercial decisions on whether to open up data based on the number and perceived economic value of the start-ups they foster.

Government has a bigger role in this, it should focus on public value - balancing how this is achieved, via commercial value, social value or the accountability necessary for a democracy.

So yay for DataStart, but it would be unfortunate if economic value became the reason, rather than one of the benefits, of opening up Australian government data to the public.

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