THE BLOG

Who Owns the Web of Data?

29/05/2015 18:47 BST | Updated 29/05/2016 10:59 BST

Around the world, people are creating the web of data. Data is often described as the "new oil", fueling economic growth, improved services and products, and, ultimately better lives.

Unlike oil, however, data deposits don't just happen. We don't 'discover' data and extract its value. We create data. We maintain it. And the data we choose to collect, and how we make it available, shapes the value created for society.

At the 3rd International Open Data Conference in Ottawa on 28 May, the Open Data Institute published a short discussion paper to stimulate a public debate about data infrastructure.

The discussion paper argues for approaching the collection, maintenance and accessibility of data that is essential to help society function as seriously as societies do their physical infrastructure. We need data to be available, and as widely used as possible, to help solve problems.

Businesses, organisations, government and members of society need to be able to rely on access to sustainable, high quality data in order to manage trade and resources, climate change and disaster response; to deliver essential services for citizens and promote economic growth; and, fundamentally, to improve our day-to-day lives.

This debate is not starting from scratch. In the UK, the Cabinet Office has led an open debate on a national information infrastructure with input from groups outside government such as the Open Data User Group. But we need a broader approach, one that takes into account data held by government and outside government, and which considers local, national and global needs.

At the local level a data infrastructure would allow a community group to look for correlations between transport data and air quality data, comparing results across multiple administrative regions, to understand the benefits of green buses and campaign for their use in areas where they can reduce air pollution.

At the national level access to aggregated mobile phone data would allow aid agencies to understand where crowds are likely to be located, where they may have come from and where they might be going. This could be invaluable when there is a need to quickly respond to emergencies.

At the multinational level, the the European Union aspires to create a Digital Single Market. To date it has focussed on easing regulatory burdens, but for the EU to respond to common problems like food scarcity and housing, or for a national digital startup to scale-up and launch operations in multiple countries, data will need to be in standard formats, used as widely as possible and available from trusted sources.

If we are able to lay the foundations for essential data infrastructure, we can more clearly understand the ethics and safeguards for how this essential data should be governed or, to put it another way, which organisations we should trust to maintain this data. Our own explorations, through the Open Addresses UK project, recommended that essential infrastructure data ​should be maintained by organisations that (1) can be trusted to exist in the long-term, (2) have a reason for continuing to make data available to others, and (3) can adapt to changing user needs and expectations.

Open data is one way of making data that forms part of a data infrastructure available and useable. Not all data will be open data, but at the Open Data Institute we believe that we need an open debate about its management and use.

In this debate we want to test our own ideas, and contribute to others. We want to work openly with individuals, communities, organisations and governments to understand what people need. And we want to collaboratively and iteratively develop the tools, guidance and standards to help create an infrastructure that is both useable and used.

We want a debate but ultimately we want to turn what could simply be theory into practice. We want to help build a web of data that can be trusted and used to grow the economy, to improve our society, to build businesses and to improve people's lives.

The ODI is starting the debate by asking: "who should own data infrastructure: globally, nationally and locally?". Our paper contains some thoughts on this question. We would love to hear yours.