Defining Open Data

I read the phrase "bearing witness" twice tonight.  It's a phrase that has been going through my mind for the past three weeks.  During this same period I've been spending a lot of time thinking about Open Data.  They're connected in important ways.

I seem to encounter the term Open Data everywhere these days.  People like David Eaves are writing about what it means in the context of civic spacesGreg Wilson is exploring it in an academic context.  Still others are thinking hard about questions of access.  Personally, I vacillate between thinking about it technically and philosophically.  Tonight I'm focused on the philosophy, and I'm concerned that we don't really know what Open Data is, or how it works.

In order to get closer to an understanding, I've been focused on these two words and what they say.  Do we know what Open Data is?  What makes Open Data different from Data?  How does Open Data do what it does?  What is the nature of Open Data?  If we ask the web, it has some things to say.  Here's Wikipedia:

Open Data is a philosophy and practice requiring that certain data are freely available to everyone, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control.
But it goes on to say:
The concept of Open Data is not new; but although the term is currently in frequent use, there are no commonly agreed definitions
Besides Wikipedia, we find the Open Data Foundation, the Open Data Commons, the Open Data Consortium project, and many more.  They all have great examples of Open Data in the wild, boilerplate text for licensing, and other pragmatic information.  But for me, none of them ask, or try to answer, the difficult question of what Open Data actually is, and how Open relates to Data.

It's a serious enough problem that I set myself the task of attempting to define it.  The result is this essay.  I don't intend it as the final word on the subject.  It's meant to get us started on the way to understanding Open Data, and to open a larger discussion about what it is and how to understand it.  My discussion is informed by the fact that I'm going to do the opposite of what most other people writing in this space do and ignore all instances of Open Data.  I'm not going to collect and distill examples from the wild into a general concept.  Rather, I'm going to put these two words--Open Data--on the table and take a long, hard look at them, and listen to what they say.

It's too long to put down here, so I've written it up as a separate page.  You can read it here: Reading Open Data.

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