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Open data is like mercury, you can’t control its flow


If you are making data available on the Internet, you cannot draw a boundary around its use, insists Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google

Data privacy has emerged as a burning issue in the location and open data narrative…

Data privacy has always been an issue and we have always recognized that location data is particularly sensitive. We deal with it with a lot of care. If you are sharing any information about your location with us, we recognize that it is a conscious decision that you, as a user, are making, and we work very hard to protect that data. We always work with techniques to anonymize the data in the best possible manner, and we are in a phase of understanding the benefits and the risks associated with that data.

In fact, the whole industry is being very careful about making sure that we and our customers trust each other in terms of having access to such information. Fundamentally, if I get benefits by sharing information — like getting a taxi right away or getting emergency services at my location — then, it is a good thing. It is more challenging for any organization that says ‘I want to see where you are’, and not be able to express a benefit. In that case, why would a user share that data with you?

Then, how do you balance data privacy and security with the need for open data?

I would detach the whole open data debate from location information and data privacy issues. Open data is getting access to data that has already been collected for another purpose — it could be for running a sensor or for a land registration process. Making that information accessible to a wider community because there is economical and political value to it is what open data is all about.

If you talk about data privacy, people now are far more accepting of the technology because it is something which is of value in their day-to-day lives and they are much more used to it. If you want to buy a new house, you can go on Google’s Street View and have a look around the neighborhood you are interested in. Whatever information is available to the public, we ensure that it is not possible to identify individuals through faces, registration plates, etc. When a new technology comes along, people are not quite sure how it works. Societal norms need to kind of balance out a little bit, and then progress is made.

You don’t collect data for the sake of making it open; you collect it because you already have a well-defined use case for that

How do you prevent the misuse of open data?

You can’t. Just accept that fact.

Does open data have any correlation with open government?

In many cases, it has, but largely, it depends on the type of data. Open data makes sense if the organization is collecting it for a good business reason. There may be spin-off benefits in making open data available and accessible to other organizations, but that is not necessarily always the case. And that is also acceptable. You are still in a beneficial situation if only one extra person gets access to the data. But, from a government transparency point of view, obviously some datasets are more valuable than others. And you need to know this much — geospatial data that is collected and made available as open data doesn’t really play into the open government narrative. Where you have information about legal processes and the legislative system is where open data is most valuable from the open government point of view.

Is open data only a government initiative, or can commercial data also become open?

The current focus is largely on government data, but the whole open data principle is broader than that. The basic principles of building ecosystems by maximizing the value of data you have captured are equally relevant whether you are a government organization or a commercial company.

Should data be open only within national boundaries?

It is very hard in this modern day to identify what national boundaries are when you are looking at data. If you make data available on the Internet — which is how you make most open data available — it is really very difficult to draw a boundary around its use. Open data is a bit like mercury. It will flow, and you don’t necessarily have control in the direction it is going to flow.

What is the cost of open data to the government? How can it be recovered?

Open data is the data which has already been collected. So, basically, you have already built a model to finance the creation, collection and management of that data. Any open use of that data then is an added benefit. And for the added benefits, I would suggest you find additional potential revenue from the additional taxation that that economic benefit gives you. You are not collecting this data for the sake of making it open; you are collecting the data because you already have a very well-defined and use case for that. The additional benefit which comes from open data is that purely that — additional benefit.