Digital Myth: Open Is Always Better

Digital Myths: #13 – If open is so great, why would anything ever be closed?

‘Open’ is like a magic wand in all things digital. Open source, open standard, open data, open access, open innovation, open government… Open is a great word; think about body language: wouldn’t you rather be open than closed? Back straight, smile on your face, arms spread ready to hug versus hunching with arms crossed over the chest. Open in internet lingo also often means free (in both senses of the word!); what’s not to like?

There is a certain naïveté to the openness cult. Let’s take the example of the EU’s Public Sector Information Directive. You know the pitch: ‘public sector information was paid by tax money and should be the available to all’. Hard to argue with that logic. There was also great expectation for the outcome when in 2013 the directive was amended to better include open government data and cultural heritage information. Great promises: the market for open data is expected to reach €75 billion, produce 100,000 jobs and save €1.7 billion in public administration costs. Isn’t that great? More jobs, government savings and even tax revenue from new businesses built on the open data. Three wishes in one, just like a Kinder Egg! ‘How can that be?’ you ask.

More jobs, government savings and even tax revenue from new businesses built on the open data. Three wishes in one, just like a Kinder Egg!

In theory, private companies will build services based on public sector data or improve existing services. By giving access to data, the hope is private investment will refine it and make it useful. By coincidence, I have some experience of this. For a few years, I’ve served as a citizen observer on the Transparency Committee of the Swedish National Archives. In its collections lies a rare treasure of public data – records of births and deaths from church congregations throughout Sweden, dating back five centuries in some cases. Researching ancestors and family trees using this material is a popular pastime. Everything is available for free for individuals but there was a discussion whether companies should be made to pay. According to the open government data ideology, it should be free for any purpose, but why should the authority not take the money if it was offered? That would be a saving for taxpayers after all, and the trend in public administration is to get revenue for various services, be that renting embassy space for functions or charging for health services. So that is my first concern with open government data: is it really better if it’s free? Besides the income for the state, sometimes companies prefer to pay as it gives them more leverage to demand a better service.

Which leads to my second concern: what is a data set anyway? The church records scanned by the Swedish National Archives are black and white, but it turns out some services prefer to scan them again in colour – that makes the old hand print, sometimes torn or water-damaged, easier to read. The quality of the data can be very different and making it useful, by adding metadata, saving it in multiple formats or keeping it up to date etc. demands work and actually adds to the public administration for which it was meant to save money. My third concern is that government agencies can cut back on their own communication and transparency efforts with the excuse that it provides open data instead, except that data is only open to those with the right tools and skills to access it, whereas the general public may be better off with information departments taking calls and printing leaflets (or updating websites for that matter).

My main problem with the openness cult is that it operates on the assumption that if data is available for free, it will be used more than if it has a price tag. That may be true in some cases, but often it is that price tag that makes it possible to turn the data into something useful. I would much rather have an economy based on the value of information – information that can be bought, sold, refined and enhanced to add value – than information that is free and the only economic values are cost savings and the opportunity to charge some consultancy hours for developing specific services. I don’t have a 100-page report with case studies and quotes from professors to back it up and I’m sure not all of the re-cycled public sector data is useless. It’s just that whenever I hear the word open, like when Spider-man senses danger, an alarm goes off in the back of my head.

Open data can be good for some things, but it’s not a silver bullet like some want you to believe. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is because it IS too good to be true. More a wish than a myth.

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.