Public Sector Data Belong to the Public and the Companies that can Mine it

image from wikipedia

On May 9th, 2013 Barack Obama ordered that all data created or collected by America’s federal government must be made available free to the public, unless this would violate privacy, confidentiality or security. “Open and machine-readable”, the president said, is “the new default for government information.”

This is a big bang for big data, and will spur a frenzy of activity. Pollution numbers will affect property prices. Restaurant reviews will mention official sanitation ratings. Data from tollbooths could be used to determine prices for nearby billboards. Combining data from multiple sources will yield fresh insights. For example, correlating school data with transport information and tax returns may show that academic performance depends less on income than the amount of time parents spend with their brats.

Over the next few months federal agencies must make an inventory of their data and prioritise their release. They must also take steps not to release information that, though innocuous on its own, could be joined with other data to undermine privacy—a difficult hurdle.  Many countries have moved in the same direction. In Europe the information held by governments could be used to generate an estimated €140 billion ($180 billion) a year. Only Britain has gone as far as America in making data available, however. For example, it requires the cost of all government transactions with citizens to be made public. Not all public bodies are keen on transparency. The Royal Mail refuses to publish its database of postal addresses because it makes money licensing it to businesses. On May 15th an independent review decried such practices, arguing that public-sector data belong to the public.

Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation, a think-tank, says most firms will eventually use at least some public-sector information in their business.

Open data: A new goldmine, Economist,  May 18, 2013, at 73

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