The open data value trap

Generic calls extolling the value of open data can actually be counterproductive, What's needed is a push to provide agencies with the necessary incentives to try open-data-based approaches.

In his relentless campaign for the importance of open data, Alex Howard recently published an interesting article where he mentions a recent press release by Gartner that highlights the “big data makes organisation smarter, but open data makes the richer”. 

As I have always sounded like a sceptic on open data I think it is important to make a clarification.

We all agree that open data is important and it has the potential to fuel existing industry sectors as well as possibly create entirely new industries. Examples abound already in government and one can see the reasoning behind encouraging private sector companies to recognise the benefits that they would get from both providing and leveraging open data.

Where Gartner government research takes a more cautionary attitude is on the fact that open data initiatives have been around for a while.

Federal, state and local governments have launched countless contests to involve and recognise application developers, and this is likely to continue in future, as open government remains an essential attribute of many government digital strategies.

However, it would be unwise not to consider the possible fatigue that the continued demand of publishing and using open data may generate inside the agencies that are responsible for that data.

Some do live and breathe public data (e.g. departments dealing with research, statistics, culture, tourism), so open data is right in line with their strategic priorities. But for many others data is just the fuel for their services and operations and while they may appreciate the importance of data being open, their short-term priorities and primary challenges keep them away from fully leveraging its value.

This is why I have been saying for quite some time that a more immediate connection between open data and agency mission priorities need to be established as early as possible. If there are problems they cannot solve, or cannot solve in a sufficiently cost-effective manner through traditional means, then open data may prove its value and its success would most likely stick with the agency.

Just telling people “If you build, they will come” is a hardly sustainable proposition, for those who struggle with doing more with less in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain environment.

So let’s keep a steady focus on open data, but let’s make sure that rather than calling just for the eye-catching headlines around healthcare or development of new business, government agencies find concrete incentives in trying out open-data-based approaches to run their own business and not to just to work for the common good.

The risk is that generic calls on the value of open data will cause several government executives to lose steam and interest, making their agencies lose the long-term opportunities coming from open data. 

This is an edited version of a post by Gartner's Andrea Di Maio. Mr Di Maio is a vice president and distinguished analyst in Gartner Research, where he focuses on the public sector, with particular reference to e-government strategies, Web 2.0, the business value of IT, open-source software. You can read his other posts here.