Open data presents opportunity, pitfalls

For the London Free Press - August 30, 2010 Read this on Canoe

The open data movement - the concept that certain data should be made available to everyone to use without restriction- is growing steadily in popularity.

An example of open data use is the London restaurant inspection score site using data from the health unit. Another is the Next Stop mobile app that shows the actual location of London transit buses using data from London Transit.

The concept applies mainly to data held by government and public corporations. They have information from which the public can benefit and it allows individuals to use and present that data in ways that the owner of the data may not have the time or inclination to do.

It is similar to the concept of transparency, which upholds that government and business should be accountable to their stakeholders.

While the concept of transparency and open data are laudable, all types of information should not be freely available.

Privacy obligations prohibit personal information from being disclosed. And there are other things that, for various reasons, ought to be confidential.

Some information needs to be kept confidential for competitive reasons, and to facilitate frank and open internal discussion on various matters.

For example, negotiations or bids for a contract could get derailed if the details were disclosed.

Open data means we can't rely on practical obscurity to filter things that are theoretically public, but in practice are quasi-private because it is not easy to access. Court files and property assessment information, for instance, are public, but it takes time and effort to get to them, thus in practice, limiting access somewhat. Attempts to put them online have resulted in privacy and security concerns.

Open data does not apply to information about individuals. The decision to reveal personal information is, for the most part, the decision of that individual.

Except where freedom of information legislation requires disclosure, individuals and organizations still are at liberty to make their own decisions about what information to disclose.

Open data is a good concept, and will result in information being used in new and useful ways.

The concept, however, is a movement, not an obligation. Those opening up data need to think about what information ought to be disclosed, and what limits are needed to protect personal, confidential and sensitive information.

Public transit locations, restaurant inspection data, and information about the status of public facilities are easy to justify making open. Each type of data needs some critical thought to ensure opening it is appropriate and does not violate legal or contractual obligations.