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22
Dec
2017

Open Data, a digital and a social revolution

Open Data, is a practice promoted by government, politicians and businesses for the sake of transparency and citizen involvement, as well as innovation. We focus on an ambition which is aiming to revolutionize the way we see and construct society.

Open Data, Open Science, Open Innovation, Open Knowledge… All these movements are linked to the same philosophy: openness and the sharing of data, information and knowledge with as many people as people.

Open Data, technical content first and foremost

Open data implies digital data. Open Data is primarily data made available on the Internet, freely accessible and usable by all, including for commercial purposes, without technical, legal, or financial restriction.

In order to be accessible by all, this data must be available in a commonly readable format, which allows the extraction and reuse of content: this excludes read-only PDF formats or formats that require the use of paid software

This data can be produced in all fields – environment, transport, town planning, geography, sociology, science, etc. – and by numerous players: local authorities, administrations, companies, associations but also citizens.

But “producing data is not an end in itself,” points out Cécile Le Guen, a consultant in Open Data at Datactivist. “What matters is the use that’s made of it. When we talk about data, we mean “raw” data, and not information. Information emerges from how we interpret the data. In the field of energy, for instance, producing data on the consumption of each household may make it possible to improve not only public policies, but also infrastructures.

The philosophy of Open Data and citizenship

The Open Data movement stemmed from a citizens’ desire to make information (administrative, political, economic but also cultural and scientific) common property, which it is in the public interest to spread. “This is a basic principle that you actually find in article 15 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, dating back to 1789,” notes Le Guen: “Society has the right of requesting an account from any public agent of its administration/"

In practice, the liberalization of access to administrative documents first emerged in 1966 in the United States, with the Freedom of Information Act. The same thing was also established in France in 1978. But it was with Barack Obama’s OPEN Government Act* in 2008, in parallel with the digital revolution and the web 2.0, that open access to data picked up speed. New technical possibilities for production and distribution were available to data producers. Meanwhile, as Le Guen puts it, “each country began to set up a legislative basis for opening up its data and commit to distributing it.”

In France, for instance, the Digital Republic Act was passed in 2016, reinforcing the process of openness launched in 2011 with the creation of data.gouv.fr, a portal for open public data.

An ambition of transparency…

Open Data is thus an essential tool to ensure the transparency of public action: the movement seeks to provide more information on the use of public funds. Citizens who are better informed enjoy greater power of action and involvement in the public sphere and in the democratic process.

Good examples of this type of initiative include websites like Votewatch and NosDéputés, which use Open Data to present the activity of European and French parliamentarians.

In the world of research, experimental data available on free access can allow better peer control to fight against fraud. The results of open research, known as “Open Science Data”, can also provide a basis for further studies around the world, which can encourage collaborative and cross-disciplinary research.

At the level of businesses, transparency is also at the heart of Open Data issues, along with efficiency and innovation. “By producing open data, companies show that they are capable of challenging themselves and organizing themselves internally to produce quality data that is useful to society,” adds Le Guen. “They form part of an area of expertise and demonstrate that they are capable of innovating.

… and innovation

Data sharing offers immense potential for understanding the world, for discovery and, most of all, for innovation. By opening up its data to the general public, a company or a community is encouraging the development of new services, which are beneficial to the citizen and which generate value.

Access to Open Data makes it possible to create apps that that meet everyday needs. By supplying data on bus traffic, for instance, a transport company provides the material needed to develop an application that allows travelers to optimize their journeys based on real-time traffic. This is the case of the Citymapper app, which operates principally in London, Berlin, Tokyo, Paris and New York.

Producing Open Data forms part of a process of joint construction of information and knowledge, between producers and users of data. “That means joining forces with researchers, starts-ups, journalists and experts to find solutions and to create innovation and, over time, jobs,” adds Le Guen.

*Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act.

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