Open Data’s Access Problem, and How to Solve it

By | September 14, 2015

The recent Gov 2.0 summit in Washington D.C. saw several promising new announcements which will help government agencies share code and best practices for making public data available to developers.

The idea behind new projects like, the FCC’s new developer tools and the Civic Commonsis that by giving developers access to data previously stored in dusty filing cabinets, they can create tools to give ordinary citizens greater access to that data.

Unfortunately, not everything open data project leads to good things. It is critical that if open data is made available on the web, it must be accompanied by some effort to ensure everyone can access it.

We’ve seen an explosion in creative hacks that use this newly available data to provide excellent online resources. Public data sites like EveryBlock, or the Sunlight Foundation’s Design for America contesthave highlighted some of the amazing ways open data can make our lives better. Whether it’s finding out crime stats, real estate values, health hazards and business license statuses in your neighborhood, or visualizing how the government is spending your tax dollars through innovative maps, open data and what you can do with it is the current hotness among web developers.

Most of the benefits are close to home — in the U.S., just about everyone has access to online government resources thanks to web-enabled computers in free public libraries.

But extend that argument to the rest of the world and the number of people that really have access to the data drops significantly. If you don’t have an easy way to get online, you can’t benefit from open data.

Michael Gurstein, Executive Director of the Center for Community Informatics Research, recently highlighted some of the problems with open data accessibility.

Gurstein points out a number of assumptions about open data that are often overlooked by those most enthusiastic about making such data publicly available.

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