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‘Open’ good, but there’s plenty of room for ‘almost open’ and ‘not open’ too

Animal Farm
Image by Ben Templesmith via Flickr

Towards the end of George Orwell’s allegorical take on the Stalinist Revolution, the pigs of Animal Farm take on the trappings of the humans they supplanted, shifting ideologically from ‘Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad’ to declare ‘Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better!’ as they rise to stand on their hind legs.

The pigs’ dogmatism forces a series of increasingly convoluted rationalisations, until they end up professing exactly the opposite of their original position. Black, it seems, really can be white… but there’s absolutely no room for grey.

With data, current moves toward ‘open’ are certainly to be lauded, and we should continue to demonstrate the benefits of more equitable access in persuading those who have yet to realise the opportunities for rethinking their business.

However, I’ve been in too many situations recently where persuasion, encouragement and demonstration have been cast aside in favour of brow beating, castigation and vitriol. Anyone who fails to immediately throw open the doors to their data vaults is, the argument increasingly seems to go, cruelly, wantonly, and entirely unreasonably standing in the path of truth, justice, and the {insert name of country} way. The language is intemperate, and the unspoken undercurrent of feeling seems almost to lump these evil data hoarders with the most vile underminers of social cohesion.

Nonsense.

Open Data is a good thing, and we could benefit from an awful lot more of it. But the arguments surely shouldn’t be religious (‘Open’ is better than ‘Closed’) or so polarised that compromise typically becomes impossible. Instead, we need collectively to demonstrate the value of change, and we need to understand and respect the positions of the market’s incumbents. Current practice should never be accepted as an excuse for lack of change, but all too often it may actually mask quite a good set of reasons.

Where data are currently sold, can we (as was to some extent done for the Ordnance Survey) calculate the costs of data collection, curation and sale, and demonstrate convincingly that more money could be made by removing that initial barrier to access?

Where a data holder participates in an existing data sharing arrangement with their peers, surely we can gather the evidence to demonstrate the likely effect of opening parts of that value chain… without destabilising an otherwise useful set of collaborations?

Where large quantities of low value data (such as a customer’s address) are stored and managed alongside highly valuable business data (the facts of a customer relationship), we can certainly set about demonstrating the ways in which a more open approach could pay dividends; instead of managing that postcode yourself, share a little in order to benefit from the work done by others on tracking past, current, and future changes of address.

Then again, maybe we should just scream and swear at all those data-hoarding dinosaurs, without trying to understand them or engage with their fears, concerns, and counter-arguments. It’s much easier that way.

Four Legs Good. Two Legs Often Quite Good, Too!

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Paul Miller works at the interface between the worlds of Cloud Computing and the Semantic Web, providing the insights that enable you to exploit the next wave as we approach the World Wide Database.

He blogs at www.cloudofdata.com.