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Open data: indispensable or nice to have?

There is a lot of support for open data, especially data provided by or through governments. The taxpayer already paid (indirectly) for data acquisition, so why pay again for the data? On the other hand, the case for open data is not as obvious as it appears. There is no clear distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’, and not to mention, the privacy concern.

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Geoff Sawyer and Marc de Vries made a compelling case for open (geospatial) data in their report ‘About GMES and data: Geese and golden eggs’ (watch video here). Apart from other societal benefits, the reasoning is that open and free government data will lead to an increase in the development of value added services, which after some time will result in a growth in tax revenue, more than compensating the government for its loss of income in data sales. The report may have contributed to the decision to provide Sentinel data open and free-of-charge. A number of years ago the US Government decided to make Landsat data freely available to anyone, which led to an amazing increase in downloads of images. Apart from economic considerations, transparency, participation (community empowerment) and efficiency and effectiveness arguments are used to support open data policy.


How can someone be against open (and free) data? If you take a closer look, the case for open data is not as obvious as it appears. There is no clear distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public’. If you are a satellite operator and have spent years developing and preparing, you are in for an unpleasant surprise if some government decides to make available for free, let’s say the same mid-resolution imagery you provide. There are also government agencies (the same agencies that in the 80s and 90s were advised to behave like businesses and charge for their data) that now shift their income-generating activities to value adding services, where they (of course) have the advantage of first, and sometimes, preferential access. These are just two examples of possible market distortions. And will open data really contribute to a level playing field for all? Apparently not, because players that are better equipped to access and handle large amounts of data and operate within the right institutional settings definitely have an advantage. This increases the knowledge-and-skills gap with, for instance, developing countries. Then there are considerations that concern privacy and increasing vulnerability to terrorism. If you are a farmer and have paid a considerable sum for equipment and sensors to get your data, why should you make open what is yours? Governments can aggregate anonymize data, but what is the value of the open result of that operation and who pays for that? Open data is nice to have, but not under any circumstances.

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