Access does not equal understanding

What was once a trickle is now a raging river. The open data movement appears to have inspired the political mainstream, and now large quantities of public sector information is available to download over the web, with more on its way.

In May 2010, for example, the UK government published the Combined Online Information System (COINS) database detailing all government expenditure through its portal.

And while there may be a PR motive behind these moves, they are nevertheless difficult to criticise. If information is power, then this is bringing power to the people.

But the flow of all this data into the public domain brings with it a problem that is all too familiar within the enterprise – accessing data is not the same as understanding it.

The COINS database is a case in point. Covering just one year of government expenditure, it contains over 3 million data points. Making any sense of it requires both an understanding of the public sector’s intricate organisational structure and fluency in accounting jargon.

This raises the question of precisely who this data is now open to – the public, or the accountancy firms of government contractors? It may well be that the information only makes a material difference of the latter, but it hardly represents the ‘transparency’ the politicians claimed to be creating. In recognition of this, chancellor George Osborne said that COINS would in future be available in a more user-friendly form.

The May issue of Information Age profiled Washington DC’s open data programme, one of the world’s first. In order to get the most of the municipal data, the local authorities offered prizes to software developers who used it to build useful applications. But since the publication of that article, the city’s Apps for Democracy programme has been scrapped.

Washington DC CTO Bryan Sivak said that participating developers tended to build applications for smartphones, “devices that aren't necessarily used by the large populations that might need to interact with these services on a regular basis.”

This confirms that figuring out how to share understanding – not just data – with the public is still a work in progress. One might argue that the same is true for enterprise organisations: the ability to empower employees with understanding – not just data – has yet to be perfected.

But then, maybe this is what organisations are really sharing when they put their data online – the challenge of understanding it.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...