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Why did I change my mind about open data?

  • Isaline Mülhauser

Knowledge against fear and suspicion – open data is beneficial

Generally disagreeing about any kind of data sharing, I realized my behavior was mostly based on fear. Fear is a major impediment to anything innovative and to any kind of change. Why did I change my mind about open data? It is about differentiating between public and private data, and about the fact that data made public are first of all edited.

New work – new ideas

In November 2015, I started working at Liip and I had a lot of new projects and inputs. The core of my work is the same, I completely changed field though. I stand now in the middle of a flow of innovative ideas and energy, which is very motivating and helps me be constantly open-minded.

One of my projects, last spring, was the coordination of Liip's involvement at the annual opendata.ch conference. No, I cannot communicate about anything if I don't understand it! Otherwise I would write complete bulls**t, people would notice it and Liip would lose all credibility on the subject. In other words, I had to know what I was talking about in order to be able to talk about it.

Fear & suspicion, people will be stalking me and CFF tickets will get more expensive

I used to completely disagree on any kind of open data. I mean, why, on Earth, would I be okay to share my personal data with the rest of the world?

Seriously, I was sure that, if I collaborate with the CFF surveys, tickets will get more expensive between Geneva and Lausanne, because they will know my commuting habits. I was convinced that Swisscom will soon be selling my personal data to private polls. If I use a MBudget Card, some people will be stalking me as they know that I always go grocery shopping at the same Migros.

Fear brings fear. It is a major impediment to anything innovative and to any kind of change. The first step to any change of perspective was me realizing that my reaction was based on some purely irrational feeling instead of rational information.

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Let's get started with some reading!

Knowledge the best enemy of fear: What is actually ‘open data' ?

My education to open data started with learning about the projects that Liip developed (like the open data catalogue of the city of Zurich or the project with the Swiss Federal Archive). I discussed with my colleagues, but the concept of open data remained difficult to grasp.

What is concretely open data?

Step 1: A definition:

The definition of open data as given by the opendefinition.org

“Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose”

As it is very general, the full open definition gives a detailed list of attributes. It is a bit of an unfriendly reading, the open data handbook provides a summary of the most important aspects:

“Availability and Access: the data must be available as a whole and at no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably by downloading over the internet. The data must also be available in a convenient and modifiable form.

Re-use and Redistribution: the data must be provided under terms that permit re-use and redistribution including the intermixing with other datasets.

Universal Participation: everyone must be able to use, re-use and redistribute – there should be no discrimination against fields of endeavor or against persons or groups. For example, ‘non-commercial' restrictions that would prevent ‘commercial' use, or restrictions of use for certain purposes (e.g. only in education), are not allowed.”

The important thing to remember is that it is a type of content completely available to anyone – public or private sector or even an anonymous quidam – and for any kind of purpose .

Step 2: Private data is not public data

I find important to differentiate between private and public data. When I heard about open data, I felt my privacy instantly threatened. However, opening public data poses no threat to my privacy.

Take the example of cadastral plans, they are available on request. A formal petition to the right administrative service would provide you the info. Opening cadastral plans merely mean saving people working with it the time necessary for the administrative hurdle.

In other words public data is often already available through an administrative process and in an inconvenient format. Opening public data mostly signifies processing and editing them in a convenient format and leaving them in a digital library. Opening public data is about creating a digital library, allowing people to find them without the administrative process.

Private data is one's individual data, for example, the data-gathered by your period application, your MBudget card, your mobile phone's GPS tracking. This data is usually under confidentiality.

Opening private data, is not only about making it accessible, but also about editing it, to make sure that it cannot be linked to anyone.

What if open data was beneficial to the community?

Commuting to Geneva, I used to be angry with the CFF, because my Intercity Train was poorly connected to my inter-regio train which lead to me losing 15 to 20 minutes twice a day. Spending 2 hours, 2 hours 30 minutes or 3 hours to commute makes a huge difference. What if the CFF knew that a significant amount of commuters take these same trains as I did? They could delay the train 5 minutes and I would be happier everyday because my travel would be shorter! What if a mobile company shared its data about the mobility of people and made these data available to the CFF? What if I answered the poll? Or better, what if, instead of spending money on a poll, the CFF could access data of commuters? The data quality might be higher and more relevant!

Urbanism: Pully as a case study

The city of Pully is pioneering in the domain with its urban project in collaboration with Swisscom. The project team is analysing the traffic – car, public transportation, bike or pedestrian – based on data provided by Swisscom's mobile network. ( More info in French about this project).

The city of Pully saved the investment necessary for a poll and had reliable data available. Processed to be anonymized, this kind of data is not a threat to my privacy. In this case, opening the data is beneficial to the whole community.

The objective of this project is to develop the urbanisation of the city according to people's real needs and not to any lobby. It could result in the creation of bike lanes or an improvement of traffic flows.

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Pully – Photo Credit l'Avenue Digital Media

Conclusion : open data supports innovation

Sometimes I hear people disagreeing strongly against the concept of open data. I hear fear and threat. The discussion very often goes towards an emotional level rather than staying pragmatic. I find it difficult to rationally fight against emotional argument. First of all, I wish people against open data could make the difference between public and private data. Opening public data means the digitalisation of an already existing public data, ultimately saving public institution's time.

Secondly, I wish they could realise that sharing information is beneficial to the community. The potential benefit of open data is greater than its threat. Opening data means, processing data, editing and anonymising it to make it available. Open data is the necessary basis of innovation and of a general increase of our quality of life.

At the moment, data can be made available, mostly by investing money (for a poll or negotiating with a company belonging data). In other words, universities, start-ups or associations are restricted to the data they can find or buy. Do we want to live in a world where innovation is driven by companies having the budget to pay for data?

Further Information:

Listen to this podcast, welcoming Pia Waugh, an open data expert and advocate who explains all to Genevieve Jacobs on ABC Radio Canberra.


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