#opendata shutdown: The Case for a Web of Data

Image from Sunlight Foundation blog. Photo originally taken by Gage Skidmore.

Federal open data portals have gone dark because of the shutdown.  Census.gov, data.gov, and countless other sites are unavailable.  Thankfully, the opendata community  stepped up and have quickly cobbled together workarounds to keep the data flowing.

We’re still just a few days into the shutdown so its full impact is yet to be felt as the our politicians play “essential services” poker and the “Anti-Deficiency Act” even prevents non-essential workers from volunteering their time, never mind checking email.

But there might be a silver lining in this debacle.  As Rahm’s Rule famously put it – “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.  And what I mean by that, is that its an opportunity to do things that you cannot do before.”

So here goes.

Open Data, at the moment, is largely governments publishing data.  Mostly, in centralized portals.  With the token comment/suggestion box, but no means to curate/contribute data.  With one notable exception – OpenDataPhilly.org.

Mark Headd – Philadelphia’s Chief Data Officer, wrote a succinct blog post exploring community-maintained data a day after the shutdown started.  In it, he asks the question – “Can an Open Data Initiative be truly open if the government that starts it can shut it down?”

Philly, you see, maybe the only city in the country that does not unilaterally control the data portal.  Mark submits that despite its challenges,  “it is ultimately a better way to engage the community of users around open data releases.  The members of our open data community are all stakeholders in the operation and management of the city’s open data portal.”

And I wholeheartedly agree!  Because right now, we’re still in the “walled garden” phase of Open Data.  The “Compuserve/Prodigy/Minitel/AOL” phase, when non-interoperable, often proprietary, centralized networks ruled (though presciently, Project Open Data is explicitly addressing interoperability).

And maybe, Philly’s not too little experiment can become one bottom-up way of achieving the long-held dream of a Web of Data.  Where hopefully, in the not too distant future – every organization – public or private, maybe, even every individual will have a data portal/vault.

A /data, much the same way just about every website has a /about, and just about everyone on the internet has an email address.

And like the internet, we will create a loosely-federated web of data with each publisher – the entity that “owns” and knows the data best – its privacy implications, its quirks, its quality, and who is ultimately accountable for it; is the one publishing its own data using open standards.

Not only does this address the “Data Hugging Disorder” by keeping the data publishing mechanism close to the data creator, it also creates a distributed, decentralized network with all its inherent fault-tolerant, replication advantages.

The standards are ready.  The technology is starting to mature.  And even the Web’s inventor is pushing for it.

Why not?  Structured open data is far easier to mark up.  Not only will it result in a more robust, shutdown-resistant way of publishing data, it will also be a big step towards a Web of Data.



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