A sketched picture of James' head

James Smith

Building a better future out of code

The Ghost of Open Data Future

Open Data Institute, 19 December 2014

This is my part of the ODI Friday Lunchtime Lecture on 19th December 2014, titled “A Christmas Carol - The ghosts of open data’s past, present and future”.


So, we’ve heard from the ghosts of the past and the present, and that means I get to be the ghost of Open Data future, or more accurately, the ghost of Open Data Yet To Come (of which there is plenty if the list of unpublished datasets on data.gov.uk is anything to go by).

In a Christmas Carol, the ghost is described like this: “When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.”

The ghost took Scrooge into his own future, and showed him a vision of despair and of misery.

Maybe the ghost had it right! The future is indeed a dark and scary place. We live in a time of converging crises, where climate change, economic instability, population growth, and many more issues threaten to make the future a worse place to be.

But, looking at the future like that is not a good approach. As Scrooge demanded of the ghost: “Good Spirit, Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

Fortunately, here, we can diverge from Dickens, because when we look at the future through the lens of Open Data, it’s very much the opposite of the ghost’s gloom; there may be some mystery, but there’s plenty to look forward to.

We’re right at the beginning of the Open Data journey, and we can easily see a bunch of ways in which it might help people in the very near future. Perhaps it will let Tiny Tim get access to better healthcare. We can help Bob Cratchit get his work done more efficiently and get home earlier to his family. And, you never know, Scrooge might find, as so many of our members and startups do, that Open Data is a competitive advantage. It might even help him make more money, which would make him, if not happy, then at least less grumpy.

Beyond that, we can imagine that if data is freely available, and properly machine readable, then we can use our technology to combine that data in new and unexpected ways. To gain new insights, to use our resources more efficiently, to find new areas of innovation and advancement.

Of course, Open Data isn’t just about first world problems. The biggest impacts will come when we take what we’ve learned and help others apply it all across the world. It’s not just about people in the rich world finding a school with the best exam results; it’s about people in the poorest nations being able to find a school with a toilet.

There will be backlashes; some will find Open Data threatening to their positions. If we expose inefficiencies, misallocation of funds, or even wrongdoing, there will be those who will use their power to stop us. At the moment we’re trying to convince everyone that Open Data is a good thing; soon, there will be opposing forces trying even harder in the other direction.

But, we will win, because as Open Corporates say, people won’t choose Open Data because it’s open; they’ll choose it because it’s better.

But, as often the case with these things, the true revolution lies not in the technology. The tech, the data, they’re part of it, but it’s not the full story. The revolution is Open.

Those of us who work in Open, whether it’s open source, open data, open science, or open content, are all pushing at a new way of working; a new way of thinking. As we so often remind ourselves at the ODI, it’s not about data, it’s about culture.

Open teaches us to accept new ideas, to trust in other people, and to be more accepting of experimentation and failure. It gives us new ways to work together, to collaborate to solve bigger and bigger problems.

Those problems we face are huge, and the ghost of the future, if we let it, could show us plenty of terrible outcomes. But the Open revolution will help us face those, to take the best ideas humanity has to offer, and combine them to overcome whatever the future throws at us.

Open helps us share information, so that everyone can have access to the sum total of human knowledge. It also helps us expand that knowledge, by bringing ever more information out from the darkened corners of our world, into the sunlight where we can see it. Open Corporates are a great example of this, showing us all just how companies and banks structure themselves to avoid inconvenient national regulation.

Open can help us learn in new ways that can adapt to the challenges of the future, rather than being educated into the roles of the past. We will learn much more from each other, not just from a special few.

Open can spread decision making out from the ivory towers, so that we can all have a say in how we organise ourselves, and how we use resources.

Open allows us all to be creators, not just consumers. Whether it’s writing for the web, publishing data about our activities, or taking part in the new manufacturing revolution using 3d printing data from I Can Make, we all have the ability to create, remix, and improve.

Open is a ladder onto the shoulders of giants, that lets us all stand there and reach higher than we ever could alone.

I also believe that Open is the thin end of the wedge that helps us build better societies. If we can accept that everyone has something to give, then perhaps we can even rebuild community, kindness, and respect. We can rebuild the public realm, the commons to which we all have a right.

Perhaps this is idealistic, but what’s the point of looking to the future if you’re not going to try to make it better?

After all, the ghost didn’t show Scrooge the future so he could just accept it; he showed it to him so that he could change his ways, and help create a better future, not just for himself, but for everyone around him.

We have the same chance as Scrooge; to choose the future we want. I want a future that’s bright, that’s optimistic. I want a future where we can all work together to make humanity better. I want a future that’s Open.