Open Data: A History

This term “open data” is becoming increasingly commonplace. That’s what Data.gov is all about. But what is open data? A new article in the Paris Tech Review offers a snapshot of how open data was born, its evolving purpose, and how it can make a difference in all our lives. “Open data” did not come out of thin air, and it’s interesting to discover its rich context.

While the term “open data” isn’t even 20 years old, the author puts the concept in a historical context; the idea that scientific research should be free to all was popularized by Robert King Merton in the early 1940s. Research (which produces data) should be shared freely for the common good.

Fast forward to the early 21st century. Scientific culture intersects with the burgeoning Internet/Information Technology society. By this time, scientists and even the general public take for granted that scientific research should be available for the public good; in fact, debates arise around length of patent protection for certain products due in part to the assumption that research data is a public resource.

In December 2007, in Sebastopol, California, a group of thought leaders gathered to discuss and define the concept of open public data. By this time, the open-source software movement was in full swing, with people collaborating, or “crowdsourcing,” software by using the Internet as their workspace. The product/software and its ongoing improvements were available for free and visible to everyone in real time via the Internet. Those who met in Sebastapol understood the Internet’s potential and the value of making data, particularly government data, understood and available as a public resource, just as our natural resources are shared for the common good. They actively promoted this idea.

Less than two years later, on his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, stating, Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.

That May, Data.gov was born. As we look forward to our fourth birthday next month, we have learned a great deal – and we’re still on the learning curve. In a few weeks, we will unveil a new catalog and look forward to your feedback on it.

In the meantime, check out “A Brief History of Open Data” in the Paris Tech Review.

Sally Ruth Bourrie of Phase One Consulting Group supports Outreach and Communications at Data.gov.

 

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