Every day we face challenges, from the personal, such as the quickest way to get to work or what is best to eat, to global ones, like climate change and how to sustainably feed and educate seven billion people.
Here at Open Knowledge we believe that opening up data and turning that data into insight can be crucial to addressing these challenges, and building a society in which everyone - not just the few - are empowered with the knowledge they need to understand and effect change.
Open data is data that can be freely accessed, used, built upon and shared by anyone, for any purpose. With digital technology, from mobiles to the internet, increasingly everywhere, we’re seeing a data revolution. It’s a revolution both in the amount of data available and in our ability to use, and share, that data.
Much of that data is personal; data about you and what you do, what you buy (your loyalty card, your bank statements), where you go (your mobile location or the apps you’ve installed) or who you interact with online (Facebook, Twitter etc). That data should never be “open”, freely accessible to anyone... its your data, and you should control who has access to it and hows it’s used.
But there’s a lot of data that isn’t personal. Data like the government’s budget, or road maps, or train times, or what’s in that candy bar, or where those jeans were made, or how much carbon dioxide was produced last year … Data like this could be open if the governments and corporations who control it can be persuaded to unlock it.
And that’s what we’ve been doing at Open Knowledge for the last decade: working to get governments and corporations to unlock their data and make it open.
We’re doing this because of the power of open data to unleash innovation, creativity and insight. Its potential to empower anyone - whether its an entrepreneur, an activist or a researcher - to get access to information and use it as they see fit. It could be citizens in Ghana using data on mining to ensure they get their fair share of tax revenues to pay for local schools and hospitals, or it could be an innovative startup like Open Healthcare UK using drug prescription data released by the UK government to identify hundreds of millions of pounds of savings for the health services.
A key point here is that real impact doesn’t come directly from open data itself, no-one’s life is immediately improved by a new open data initiative or an additional open dataset. Data has to be turned into knowledge, information into insight and someone has to act on that knowledge.
To do that takes tools and skills, tools for processing, analysing and presenting data, and skills to do that. And this is another key area of Open Knowledge’s work. With projects like School of Data we’re working to teach data skills to those who need them most, and in Open Knowledge Labs we’re creating lightweight tools to help people use data more easily and effectively.
Finally, it’s about people: the people who use data, and the people who use the insights from that data to drive change. We need to create a culture of “open data makers”, people able and ready to make apps and insights with open data.
We need to connect open data with those who have the best questions and the biggest needs, a healthcare worker in Zambia, the London commuter traveling home, and go beyond the data geeks and the tech savvy.
Open data and open knowledge are fundamentally about empowerment, about giving people, citizens, journalists, NGOs, companies and policy-makers, access to the information they need to understand and shape the world around them.
Through openness, we can ensure that technology and data improve science, governance, and society. Without it, we may see the increasing centralisation of knowledge, and therefore power, in the hands of the few, and a huge loss in our potential, individually and collectively, to innovate, understand, and improve the world around us.
Dr Rufus Pollock is Founder and President of Open Knowledge, an international non-profit using advocacy, technology and training to unlock information and turn it into insight and change. He was formerly a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and a Mead Fellow in Economics at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge and is currently an adviser on open data to several governments. He has worked extensively as a scholar, activist and technologist on the social, legal and technical challenges around the creation and sharing of knowledge. He is also an Ashoka Fellow since 2013.
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