How ‘open data’ can actually be closed

Last October, I had the privilege of covering Open Access Week for the Digital Tattoo Project, where some of the most forward-thinking minds in the world of ‘open access’ learning delivered a series of presentations that ultimately boiled down to one essential idea: everyone should have access to knowledge and information.

The premise seems obvious, and to the average college student, it might even seem redundant– after all, between the combined efforts of Google and Wikipedia, you can pretty well figure out everything you need to know, can’t you? Well, it’s not quite that simple.

According to a 2012 STM report, each year, research institutions across the world churn out about 1.8 million articles across 28,000 journals. The unfathomable number represents an ever-increasing body of knowledge. However, these numbers become worrisome when we actually consider just how many people actually have access to this material. The bulk of these journals are confined to university libraries, while strong academic language can confuse even the sharpest of undergrads (if I had a nickel for every scholarly sentence that flew over my head, I’m sure I could have shaved a few thousand off of my tuition).

The major point of concern is that most of the knowledge being produced today is inherently exclusionary. And to quote the passionate Dr. Jon Willinksy from his keynote speech at Open Access Week, “knowledge is of no use locked up.”

The emergence of MOOC’s and ‘Open Textbooks’ indicate that there are more accessible models of education are opening up. And while they might not be the norm (at least not yet), they’re definitely growing. But according to Dr. Willinsky, the next frontier is ‘open data’.

‘Open data’ refers to datasets provided by research institutions and governments. Local governments are one of the most popular open data gatherers. A quick look at the B.C. Governments data catalogue offers everything from the results of rural land surveys to public high school graduation rates. However, just because the information is public does not mean it is accessible.

A major problem with open data is that it is inherently closed: they’re supplied in large and complex excel worksheets and their meaning is hidden amidst a barrage of columns and rows. To make sense of such data not only requires the use of visualization software (many of which are quite expensive), but also a technical proficiency that only comes after years of practice.

Some argue that there should be standards set in place for open data catalogues to be more digestible for the general public, especially when coming from local governments. But in British Columbia, both the provincial and municipal governments continue to churn out raw spreadsheets. At any rate, there are a multitude of online resources that can allow you to play around with some of these datasets (and who knows, maybe even find a breaking news story hidden inside!). Google Fusion Tables, Many Eyes, and Tableau Public are free online visualization tools that are quite user friendly (in the case of Tableau Public, a free demo is offered). Take a look at some of the user generated content (like this glimpse into the traffic habits of Vancouver cyclists), and see how others are helping to interpret the ‘open data’.

Do you guys think local governments and research bodies should make their ‘open data’ a little more digestible? Hit the comment section below with your thoughts.

For further information, take a look at our page on Open Learning

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One response to “How ‘open data’ can actually be closed”

  1. Sook

    No, I do not. We in Australia had a open data policy on selecting and breeding dairy cattle which resulted in top herds being shipped overseas. It’s not the only market that we have virtually given away. Our kids need jobs too. We need to be competitive in the market place, but our trading partners will not float their currencies. This gives them a free ticket to out-price us and eventually shut down our industries. It’s not a fair playing field. The open data policy would’ve been a joke in days gone by. Remember, trade secrets are secret for a reason.

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