Open Data: What it is and Why it Matters

Open Data Cabinets 0 FDPN

Russell Williams

The World Bank suggests that data is open if it is both Technically Open – available in a standard format easily read by a machine and Legally Open – permits unrestricted commercial and non-commercial use or re-use. Wikipedia the online encyclopedia suggests that the data should be freely available to everyone to use and redistribute as they wish free from copyright or patent restrictions or other such control. Click on the link to access to the World Bank’s Open Data Toolkit.

But having a definition is all fine and good but where do we go from there?

To gain a better understanding it might serve to give examples of what sort of data is being made available around the world. The city of London, UK gives a very good sample of the data available from Environmental and Tourism to Health and Transport, visit for more details.

The city of Vancouver in Canada too has a wealth of information shared with its residents or interested persons. Information varies from the city’s budget and expenses, to the status of public parks, car parking spaces and Bike Rack locations etc.

The information or data is grouped in “Datasets” and made available to persons for free. Now, in many cases the authorities whether local or central government have this data and are simply making it available, to interested stakeholders to use as they see fit.

So why should we in the region be bothered with Open Data? I recently watched – the video stream was playing while I was working on something else – a workshop on Open Data held by the World Bank, the theme was Can Open Data Boost Economic Growth and Prosperity. It was a very insightful discussion and I can recommend the investment in time to those interested in learning more.

Whether we accept or believe it or not, we need data and more of it must be made available to us in order to inform better decision making. Whether we’re looking for potential business opportunities or simply want to know the population or number of person living with diabetes. Yet, in many of our countries getting meaningful data on almost any aspect of society is like searching for the Holy Grail.

Perhaps an example of a real open data use case better demonstrates how open data can be used. There’s a project in the United States called Adopt-a-Hydrant, the project uses some software to map fire hydrants across cities in the US, and local residents can adopt one near where they live. When it snows, they volunteer to clear the snow from around it.

Continuing the principle of openness the developers who wrote the very first version of the software Open Sourced their code, that is they made the source code available to other developers to use and modify. This code is used in Hawaii! That’s right, the land of the hula, grass skirts and surfing. I know what you’re thinking, that there’s not much need for clearing snow in Hawaii. But the code – program/software – is used with a different data set to create Adopt-a-Siren where residents adopt their local Tsunami warning Siren.

These are two very real examples of how government can maximise their data, reduce maintenance costs and increase community involvement. But we can only get there if the gatekeepers loosen their grip on the data and open their minds to the possibilities and improved services that could be achieved by opening their data.


About the Writer
An IT Professional for more than 20 years and an entreprenuer for more than a decade, Russell Williams has extensive experience as an IT Trainer and faciliator and is happy to answer your questions. E-mail them to or follow him on Twitter @RwilliamsKN


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