How open are your data?

I’ve just been looking at this interesting piece of work by the Open Knowledge Foundation which looks at the data made available by various states. Essentially, they looked at topics such as government budget, election results and national maps in each country and checked whether these subjects had data available that was up-to-date, free of charge, online, available in bulk, machine-readable, publicly available, openly licensed…

As you may know, I get twitchy about taking rich data like this and boiling them down to an index, let alone a league table, but I guess that’s the way to get the headlines. The UK is the most open country, which is nice. Those at the bottom are characterized not by their secretive dictatorships (they didn’t bother with North Korea), but by their incompetence. In these cases, the data either doesn’t exist, or nobody knows if it is available or not. That sounds to me like an index that measures more than just openness. There are also some countries that get marked down for such data not existing in the first place, for example election results in China. Is this an index of democracy or open data? Switzerland looks bad because the government doesn’t provide timetables for the famously reliable public transport; I wonder if anyone cares.

I’m not convinced that all the topics carry equal weight anyway. Transport timetables get marked down if the government doesn’t provide them, but the notion that the government must do this job is a very social democratic one. I’m there, but I don’t see why everyone should be. National maps might come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with less relaxed milieux; when I was a schoolboy in Apartheid era South Africa we (white kids) were taught how to read topographical maps, navigate by the sun etc. At the end of each lesson the maps got counted back in and locked in the school vaults. You couldn’t buy one or look at them in the library, lest they fell into the “wrong hands”. Now, looking back, I realise our lessons were more about war than geography. Blocking access to maps and the internet is way more serious than who prints the bus timetable.

I’d have gone to gaol for this

And another question that springs to mind is who accesses the open data? Nerds steeped in N-triples and JSON parsing? Because that ain’t open in my book.

The presentation is a nice color-coded chart with popup info on clicking, although irritatingly there is no way of closing the popup. But it’s thought-provoking stuff.


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