Theoretically, most data the government has is available to the public. But as any journalist can tell you, all it takes is a persnickety admin to shut that down — at least, until you can get an attorney general’s opinion.
So, I was not surprised to learn that most countries, including the U.S., are dragging their feet on open data.
A recent report by the World Wide Web Foundation shows that fewer than 8 percent of the 86 countries surveyed publish data sets on government budgets, spending, contracts and ownership of countries as open data. That means releasing the data in bulk machine-readable formats and under open re-use licenses, Gigaom reports.
I’m surprised that this shocks anyone, and perhaps it wouldn’t if so many countries hadn’t specifically promised—just last year—that they would release such data.
“This is particularly disappointing as both the G7 and G20 groups of countries have said they will try to create more governmental transparency by providing open data that anyone can crunch and build new businesses upon,” Gigaom writes.
The UK ranked 100—ahead of all countries in terms of making data available. For instance, it is the only country to publish a company register. Still, open data advocate Tim Berners-Lee, whose foundation published the report, said the UK has a long way to go.
It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that the UK government announced that it will collaborate with the U.S. and a number of other nations on digital public services, ComputerWorld reports. Obviously, that includes open data sets, but it also includes sharing programs that teach young people digital skills, the article adds.
The U.S. ranked second, scoring 92.66, with third-place Sweden scoring 83.7 percent. Diginomica notes that there’s a huge difference between the first-ranked UK and 20th ranked Israel, which was given a score of 52.97.
“Almost half that of the UK. Once you get halfway down the table, the likes of Columbia in 40th place are getting scores of 32.8,” Diginomica writes. “There is a clear divide between those at the top of the table that are ‘getting it’ and those that aren’t. Which begs the question, are these countries ready?”
My guess? Not likely, especially given the struggles that “high capacity” countries like the UK and Germany have experienced with open data. Even in New York City, it’s a struggle to obtain data sets that are theoretically available to the public. The Village Voice shared an excerpt from New York statistician Ben Wellington’s TEDx Talk on the difficulties of obtaining open data from NYC:
In one case, an acquaintance had to file a Freedom of Information Law request for taxi location data, something that could have easily been posted on the city's website. It was data that was public in theory but not practice. The researcher ultimately had to walk into a city office with a hard drive under one arm. “[The taxi data] was 'public,' " Wellington says, making scare quotes. "But it wasn't public. And we can do better than that as a city. We don't need our citizens walking around with hard drives."
If you’d like to know more about specific countries, the WWW Foundation report ranks countries by their capacity to publish open data. And since this is Berners-Lee’s foundation, you can also download the survey data.
Loraine Lawson is a veteran technology reporter and blogger. She currently writes the Integration blog for IT Business Edge, which covers all aspects of integration technology, including data governance and best practices. She has also covered IT/Business Alignment and IT Security for IT Business Edge. Before becoming a freelance writer, Lawson worked at TechRepublic as a site editor and writer, covering mobile, IT management, IT security and other technology trends. Previously, she was a webmaster at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and a newspaper journalist. Follow Lawson at Google+ and on Twitter.