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Why Is Open Data Still Guarded?

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I recently took part in a panel discussion called Open for Business: The City of Toronto's Open Data Initiative at Dx3 Canada.

As the session summary explains: "The heart of the digital revolution is the access to and utilization of good data. The City of Toronto has such data publicly available through its Open Data Initiative. This session will explore why some businesses aren't using it and what the city can do to help."

It's not surprising then to learn that those attending the session were generally supportive of open data initiatives, particularly the efforts being made in cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton, and Vancouver. But as the conversation progressed, we all wondered if the efforts that have been made are reaching the full potential of open data. In other words, are we seeing a more transparent government? Are the right people seeing the benefits of the access to this information?

Let me explain.

Currently, the available open data seems to be used primarily by developers who make and sell apps, or by enthusiasts who write code as a hobby. It leaves me wondering if the only promise of open data is in monetizing that information for a downloadable app that may be of limited long-term value.

Phyllis Berck, Director of the Toronto Office of Partnerships, noted there are some real opportunities to use open data in order to tap into social issues and needs to help the government better deliver services, which is a city's core business. This idea was the turning point in the discussion for me because I don't think we're there yet, and I wonder if we'll be able to get there without engaging a broader range of people in the dialogue.

I find myself looking at current forays into using open data with more questions than answers, so I'll pose a few of them here in hopes of sparking a conversation and perhaps, in some small way, help move the process forward.

If we look at groups who might benefit from access to the kinds of information that the city of Toronto is making available -- and I am thinking here of social services or tapping into these data sources to address social issues -- are they equipped with the right tools to join the discussion?

In our panel discussion we also tried to address what impact the digital divide has on skewing the discussion if certain groups or individuals who could potentially make a material contribution are victims of the gap or don't have the lexicon to make their ideas heard?

And, if they can't be heard or aren't able to become involved in the conversation, are we destined to see the only value of government open data efforts being the provision of information for incubators, entrepreneurs, and app developers to monetize?

At the end of the session, the one thing we could all agree upon is the need to keep the discussion going, so in that spirit I would welcome your thoughts and ideas: How can we get a broader range of people engaged to make meaningful use of this information? What do we need to do use the data to address social issues and get the right people (whether technically adept or not) into the conversation?

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