Releasing the People’s Data

a journey to the centre of the government

cross-posted from Open Data @ CTIC blog, also available in Spanish there
Note: this is the story that goes along the presentation (slides, video) gave at Personal Democracy Forum Europe, Barcelona, 21 Nov 2009.

The Earth, our mother planet, a fascinating piece of the universe for us all, including Professor Otto Lindenbrock. Journey to the Center of the Earth (by Jules Verne, 1864), follows a plot on which Professor Lindenbrock is fascinated and increasingly excited by the messages hidden in cryptograms written in a strange language (runic script) and the treasures hidden behind them. Cracking every message takes him (his nephew Alex, and his maid Martha) one step closer to center of our planet where those treasures supposedly are; but how to get there?

In order to get to the center of the Earth (the core), one has to go through several
, namely the crust and the mantle. Those are very difficult (almost impossible for them) to get through, but their interest in acquiring more knowledge and the fascinating things they could find in the center encourage them all enough to find a way to overcome every difficult

The starting point of the journey is hidden in the first message: Snæfellsjökull, a volcano in Iceland. In fact, promising points might be those such as volcanos and craters, where one can enter a few miles «withouth much of a problem». The group has to solve several enigmas along the way in order to find the right path. Remember, they were not sure at all of what they were going to find in there. After all, they couldn’t see it from the outside. From the crust, it’s more than 6,000Km to get to the core.

Let’s go back to the «real world» for a second (after all, the book is science fiction, isn’t it?). Let’s say that the core is the data and that all the layers are the government structures that envolve the data to preserve, protect, manage and (too often) obscure it. Think of IT departments, security departments and every single organizational artifact that has anything to do with the data.

Now that we are here, what about going up a few layers? Planet Earth is just one in a galaxy and is not the only one with this structure. If one takes a look at others such as Mars, the structure is nearly the same, a core and several layers surrounding it. The same goes for Mercury, and for many others, even moons and satellites of planets seem to have a similar structure. Some have a bigger core than others, some have more layers between crust and core but, in general, the phenomenon is repeated.

Back to our government and public information context, we recognize the pattern. Some governments produce more data than others. Some structures are heavier than others depending on the government. Some governments have more departments, agencies (you name it) between the data and the crust or, more specifically, between the data and the people. Yes, the people, out there on the crust, most of them (us) not even imagining what underlays there in the core.

There have been moments in time on which the Earth and other planets have experienced important happenings, some of them quite traumatic, such as collisions of meteors. This has led to changes to their structure and also to evolution.

Fortunately, some of we, the people, are strongly encouraging governments to do the right thing: to release the people’s data. I’m not talking here about the usual opaque suspects (national security related, privacy related, and the like) but about all those other data that are hidden between too many layers for no apparent reason other than not releasing it «just in case», what I’ve called many times «obscurity by default«. Things are interestingly changing all over the world over the last year or two, the government is starting to open its doors. The various layers are becoming more transparent, and the difficulty to «find a volcano» where to start or decipher an enigma is becoming less necessary. Volcanos and craters are all over the place, even a few paved ways to the core are appearing.

There’s still much to be done in the sense of how to improve the procedures, how to ease access to data, how to make it all linkable so people can mash it up and mix it in any way they like. Planet Earth is one among many in a galaxy, in the universe, but, as Charles Eames said: «eventually, everything connects.»

Think big and remember, releasing the people’s data means to give it back to their real owners. Isn’t it a wonderful thing to do?

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  1. It’s a very interesting point of view. I hope that our local project in Gijón will be a modest example that our administration believe in this kind of iniciatives and we strongly believe that we can build a more intelligent society open our datasets 😉


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