Reading Open Data

In what follows we will attempt to read the words Open Data, and to understand what they say.  Increasingly we encounter these words, but are still without a useful definition.  What is Open Data?  The answer is always to point out examples.  We lack a clear understanding not only of what Open Data is, but also how it is what it is.  How does Open Data differ from Data?  How does it do what it does?  These are the questions we will ask.

As we begin to read, the first word we encounter is so obvious and yet so overloaded we almost don't see it.  We see through it.  "Open means not closed."  "Open means free."  Open is as large and problematic a word as we could expect to encounter at first, and so we won't try to deal with it yet.  Without stopping to try and understand what it means here, we can look at how it works in this case.  We can say that Open qualifies the second word, Data.  It is Data that we need to understand now, even though we encounter Open first.  Open is how we get to Data, how we will come to understand Data, once we have encountered it.  Open is where we must end, not where we can begin.  First we step through the door left ajar by Open and pause to consider Data.

What is Data?  We ask the question and are told, without hesitation, that Data is a set of numbers, a map, a list of measurements, a graph, a series of images, a genome, a chemical compound, a set of survey results, a population study, an audio clip--and this is just a start.  These are the facts.  What is a fact?  How does Data become a fact?  We get closer to an understanding if we listen to what the word Data says to us.  Datum (plural Data) is the neuter past participle of the Latin dare (to give).  Data is a given.  It becomes a fact by being accepted.  We can hear this quite clearly, whether in mundane or scientific speech: "Given x=10 we solve for y..."; "It is commonly accepted that..."; "That's a given."; and so on.

The language of Data is the language of the gift and givenness.  We understand how Data works only when we see that it is not a number, graph, image, or result, but rather, that which is given.  Data is what is accepted.  Data's nature is in being given and, in having been given, being accepted.

Data is a given.  For purposes of understanding Open Data, we get closer to its meaning if we withhold our use of the word Data, and instead listen to what Data says to us about itself.  As we come to think about that which is given, our attention shifts away from the thing given and comes to rest on its givenness (i.e., on the fact that it is given as a gift).  The gift is, first and foremost, what is given.  Consider the gift of a book, given to a friend.  The book is not a book in being given--it is a gift.  It becomes a book only after being accepted, only later.  What passes between us is the gift.  The gift is given to someone.  We have a name for the one to whom the gift is given.  Language itself names it, calling it the dative case, the so-called "giving case."  Data, dative--both share the same root and and same givenness.

We have understood the givenness of the gift, and how it works, since we were children.  We symbolize it by wrapping a gift in paper, concealing what is inside, taking our gaze away from what it is, and placing it on the movement between you and me.  What we give a friend is always a gift no matter what we give.  We delay the being of what is inside by giving it as a gift.  The gift is never what you need (i.e., what you require) in being given.  It may become so, or you may make it so.  It is nothing but a gift.  It is simply what is given.

We take this less commonly understood sense of Data (as a given) with us as we return to the difficult question we put aside earlier, namely, what does it mean for Data, for what is given, to be Open?  What is it about Data that is closed and needs opening?  What does Open modify in Data?  If we think about Data as numbers or information, that is, if we consider the what of the gift instead of its givenness, we miss what Open does here.  Many people assume that being able to see what the gift is makes it open--that if one can see the numbers or results, for example, they are open.  But Data is not a set of variables, not a list of measurements, not a set of numbers.  If we listen to what Data says we understand that Data is a given.  We said that we wrap gifts in order to divert the gaze from the what to the givenness.  However, this is not essential, and most gifts are never wrapped, nor could they ever be.  The nature of the gift is not in being concealed and then revealed, but in being given.  As such, Open has nothing to say about the what of the gift; instead it speaks about its givenness.

Since the nature of the gift is in being given instead of in being concealed and revealed, we must look more closely at how Open affects it.  At this point it would be easy to conclude that Open says that the gift is given to everyone.  This is consistent with the politics of Open Data--that we might give something to everyone.  But this isn't what Open does here.  Open doesn't address the recipient (the dative), but qualifies the givenness of what is given.  What is given moves from being given toward being accepted.  Open speaks to this movement.

What is Open?  Open works by letting us see and move through.  It does not reveal itself directly.  We move out of the woods and into the open, we can see through the clearing, to its centre.  Open draws aside what would otherwise obstruct our passage or gaze, it uncovers, sets aside, exposes.  We are familiar with the open door, which is the door that is not set in place; so too the open curtain, revealing the view through the window.  What does the Open Data do?  We said that Data is a given, that its nature is in being given and not in being concealed and revealed.  When we encounter Open with a noun, we know that it qualifies it, makes us rethink how it does what it does.  The encounter with the door is nothing like the encounter with the open door.  How does Open change Data?

Taking into account what we have just said, Open Data is what is given to someone in such a way that we are aware of its givenness.  We are witnesses to it.  Where Data is a given, Open Data is a given that is given before our eyes, in our presence.  The fact that we are there is not irrelevant.  The witness that Open brings to Data's givenness is significant.  We are never simply idle observers, never anonymous voyeurs.  Instead, Open entrusts us with a role.  What is given is given in front of us.  The gift is not for us, is not from us, but is in front of us.  We enter the clearing and watch the gift being given.  Our presence here changes what has taken place.  How is this so?

In Given Time, Derrida shows us the paradox of the gift, that all gifts, in being given, destroy themselves.  The gift demands that something be given back, thus annulling itself.  There is always a movement toward recompense, always a need for response on the part of the one receiving the gift, even if only a 'thank-you.'  In this sense, the gift is always a transaction within an economy.  We spoke earlier of wrapping gifts, and how this temporarily affects our gaze.  As the gift is given, as it is accepted, it literally becomes unwrapped.  It moves away from being a gift given to a friend, and becomes the book.  Furthermore, the gift disappears between the giver and receiver and becomes debt:  perhaps our friend now feels anxiety about not having also brought a gift, or wonders how to repay this kindness; perhaps we wonder why our friend has not said 'thank-you.'  The givenness of the gift, like the paper that covered it, is quickly torn away.

What this means is that the gift is always temporary, and is lost in being given.  If its givenness is to remain, it can do so only in being remembered.  The gift's givenness must be caught as it is shed in being given.  This is what the witness does.  While the gift destroys itself, becoming a transaction between the giver and receiver, its givenness remains for the witness.  More than that, its givenness is handed to the witness; this is where it goes as it disappears.  The gift given in the open, in our presence, lays a heavy burden on us.  We are entrusted with the job of remembering and sharing its givenness.  The gift becomes inscribed by us, by our safe keeping of its memory.  We must carry the givenness forward, bearing witness to it.

Open does not change the fact that the givenness of the gift fades with being given.  What is given moves from being free to becoming debt.  The gift is always unwrapped in being accepted.  Open Data introduces the witness, who carries away the givenness, bringing it forward in a way that the gift on its own never could.  The weight of the gift's memory passes to the witness, who must bear it.  Long after the book has been lost on a shelf, and the giver and receiver parted ways, the givenness remains in the memory of the witness.   It remains, suspended in time, at the full extension of one hand giving, and another receiving.

Open Data has its being in being remembered as a given, in being retold by the one who witnessed it, by the one who bears witness to it.  Where gifts are nothing more than private transactions, the givenness of the gift given in front of a witness goes on giving long after the gift has disappeared.  Open Data is not data that is available to everyone, not data that is free.  Open Data is data that is always given.  Open Data relies upon the witness for its being.  Where data gets written off as debt, Open Data remains a given.

We have been reading Open Data, trying to listen to what it says.  In these words we read the story of the gift and givenness, and also of the one who bears witness to what was given.  Open Data is never about numbers or something we did or did not receive.  It is a memory we give, share, and accept.

David Humphrey, September 2009