What is it about information access that makes open data a much discussed topic in all areas of government and business? Today, a significant shift in what is regarded as commercially and politically valuable makes data acquisition, use and placement one of the most important commodities in a global economy. The considerations applied to data ownership and use are now at the forefront of thinking by many people.
In the same way that there is significant impetus in the movements that promote open source software and open hardware design and availability there is also an open movement to make appropriate data available without restriction. The open data movement has as its goal, free availability and use of certain data. This includes the reuse and republishing of the data.
Discussions about the philosophical connections between scientific discovery and the data that supports such discoveries has been debated for at least the past 300 years since the Industrial Revolution. Legal principles have been put forward. Much of the formal framework was proposed by Robert Merton.
With the ubiquitous reach of the Internet, the acknowledgement of the principles of “open data” have now been adopted by the US and the UK government. On its website, http://www.data.gov,, the United States through its Chief Information Officer has made the following statement; “The purpose of data.gov is to increase public access to high value, machine readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the Federal Government.”
The concept of open data has to work within, and cope with, the initiatives of various organisations that seek to place a commercial value on data and its usage. These matters are still being reviewed by all interested parties.
John Wilbanks, Vice President Science of Creative Commons has pointed to the irony that as the world has become more and better inter-connected the forces of government and commercial enterprises are making even greater efforts to lock up data, preventing its use except in a commercially controlled manner.
Part of the challenge in making open data available is the lack of knowledge within the public research community as to what legal claims and protections need to be put in place for the data emanating from their efforts. The publication of data in journals and other media makes the work freely available to all. However without proper licencing protection this data can be easily turned into proprietary information by any organisation that aggregates it and asserts copyright through available legal mechanisms. Data that was publish with a view to it being openly available can be lost to the public domain without adequate legal forethought.
At the governmental level, there are however, a number of initiatives that have been put in place to ensure open data access. This includes soft-law action by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).