Open data: Why it doesn’t seem as sexy as it used to be

Open data was all the rage I the Caribbean a few years ago. We outline a few of the likely reasons, it seems to have hit the dust.

 

You probably wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t witness it yourself, but five to seven years ago, Open Data was all the rage in the Caribbean. Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and even academics, were all on board and in the first instance, working towards making government data more accessible.

To be clear, and according to the Open Data Handbook, Open Data (OD) “is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike”. Frequently, OD is targeted at governments, since they regularly generate and collect vast amounts of data, from a wide cross-section of subjects. Further, it has been widely held that by putting more information in the public domain, innovation will be fostered, which in turn can drive economic growth. However, with all those benefits, why does it appear that all of the excitement around OD has died in the Caribbean?

We are already too jaded

First, although we might not readily admit it, many of us do not trust Caribbean Government. More importantly, we are wary to invoke rights we might have under freedom of information legislation that might exist, believing that essentially, it is a zero-sum game.

We all know of cases where, all too frequently, a government ministry, department or agency to which a request for information, under the freedom of information framework, has been directed, find itself either: not forwarding the information at all, or whatever is released is heavily redacted. Frequently, the received documents are rendered (almost) useless, and it is thus not surprising when people are not enthused to reach out and to try to collaborate with their government on their data requirements, or data-driven projects.

Governments undermining OD efforts

Second, following from the previous point, and noting that governments are a major source of data, a change in attitude ­­– on the port of the government and demonstrating greater support for OD – may be in order. Currently, there is a general sense that efforts to make government information more freely and openly available have ground to a halt across the region.

Many ministries, departments and agencies recognise that the data they possess has value, and so they want to either horde it for themselves, or offer it at a premium, thus eroding opportunities for its use. However, such as posture is at odds with the stated intention to have greater transparency (and accountability) in governments, and may need to be revisited.

So far, limited innovation

Finally, although OD can be an impetus for innovation, some quarters might be disappointed by what seemingly little has occurred to date in the Caribbean. On the part of the entrepreneurs and innovators, many of the projects so far have had limited commercial success. Frequently, the projects were useful primarily to local government organisations; hence with a very small customer base and unlikely to generate significant revenue.

Innovation that thinks outside the box, and ultimately is lucrative, cannot be rushed. Further, the ‘precious’ environment that currently obtains, where government data is being horded, does not create the enabling environment for innovation to shine. For that to happen, requires a paradigm shift, where the data is freely and readily available, thus encouraging creative juices to flow.

 

Image credit:  justgrimes (flickr)

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