The 3rd international open data conference happened in Ottawa this year, which sparked optimism about open data making its way around the world. There have been great conversations about open data in cities, parliaments, participation, fostering citizen engagement and impact measurement. I want to highlight here three key areas that don’t hear as much discussion or debate in the conference:

  1. The economics and business models of open data: digital data is revolutionising many industries and open data offers opportunities to spur innovation, to achieve productivity gains and to improve strategic decision making in businesses. For example, a study by the Economist Intelligent Unit in 2013 reveals that open data is the second most important type of data that executives consider the most valuable for making strategic decisions. Besides internal efficiencies, open data is generating a new industry itself and we’ve seen new ventures emerging in the form of apps, platforms and services. We need evidence to assess what viable business models exist out there and to understand their significance in the economy, locally, regionally and around the world.
  1. Ethics of open data and data evils: despite its great potential to do well, open data can also be used for evil—as with all technologies. Disclosing citizen identities may be cause of harm, discrimination or unfair treatment especially to minorities or vulnerable people. During the research symposium on Wednesday 27, Yasodora Cordova presented cases from Brazil that highlight the tensions between the obligations imposed by laws to publish personal data about sensitive issues (pregnant women and HIV patients) and the rights of citizens to maintain their identities protected. Another case in point was a controversial app called “ghetto tracker” released in September 2013. The app was allegedly created to help users to ‘navigate’ safe parts of towns, but it immediately drew critics due to its racists and classic stereotypes of what is good and bad. Algorithms are not simple created in a technical vacuum and open data is anything but objective or neutral. We need more work to solve how we should assess the judgements and motivations that are behind the scenes on open data applications, including policy. We also need a critical view on balancing personal data rights and the value of granular open data.
  1. Who benefits from open data: no doubt the power of open data relies on its use. One acclaimed social value from open data is its potential to improve the lives of end uses, and in particular, those poor and marginalised. However, open data may reinforce the more empowered actors in society—that is, better educated, well-off economically, younger, or big corporations. Access to the internet and computers, data analytics skills, supportive regulatory systems and local resources remain the main barriers to broaden the benefits of open data for society—and from internet access more in general. This is usually an acclaimed problem for so called “developing countries”. In the UK, at least 10 million people still do not have access to the internet at all. Right, there is a good argument: you may not need connectivity but good intermediaries to curate the data and make it accessible or useful to broader sectors of the population. But we need to reflect more on who’s profiting the most from open data in general, and who’s paying for that data to be available.

Many discussions in the conference were around how to measure the impact of open data, including our work at ILDA. There are great efforts on its way for understanding where we are and what the future for open data looks like. We shall see more multidimensional frameworks for understanding the economic value and new business opportunities. We shall also see frameworks that take into consideration broader social values and ethical aspects in open data initiatives.

As in the case of commons-based peer production, open data has the potential to develop creative, cultural, social and political virtues in benefit to society. Keeping the debate alive and accumulating evidence to sorting out the challenges will enhance the virtuous practices and value generation that open data is bringing to various sphere of social life.


About the Author

Carla Bonina, PhD is Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Surrey Business School and the Surrey Center for the Digital Economy. Her research interests lie in the intersection of technology innovation, entrepreneurship and policy. She’s an Associate Researcher at ILDA. She twits @carlabonina

Note: this post was originally published at the Surrey Center for the Digital Economy on 29 May and is reproduced here with permission.