‘Open’ is the new ‘Social’

Posted: September 1, 2011 in Open Data Movement
Tags: , , ,

The functionality that has set the web world a blaze, created whole industries and churned out billionaires from fiddlers of code is ‘social’. It’s even shaken Google to its core. ‘Social’ has also made news organisations think ‘digital’, however the phoenix that will emerge from the burning embers of the newspaper industry is ‘open’. The functionality of Open Data will separate the losers from the winners in the digital news (r)evolution. Curation, aggregation, live are all currently thrown in the mix but no one overarching model has yet ignited the flames of public engagement.

So I want to talk about Open Data. But what is Open Data? The best I can offer you is the open definition from the Open Data Manual which reads: “Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike.” For the best understanding of Open Data I would highly recommend you read a report by Marco Fioretti for the Laboratory of Economics and Management of Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa entitled Open Data: Emerging trends, issues and best practices (2011).

This blog post will really be about how this report highlights the need, duty and opportunity for news to become part of this Open Data movement and, in my opinion, the news industry can be what Open Data needs to cultivate the ethos of information access amongst the public. The first thing the report happens upon under “Social and political landscape” is news; big news which many organisations struggled to maintain across news flows. These are the Spanish “Indignados” , the Arab Spring, the Fukushima nuclear accident and Cablegate. Whilst Marco admits that Wikileaks may have caused some hostility towards Open Data he notes that:

…while certainly both Open Data and Wikileaks are about openness and transparency in politics, not only are there deep differences between the two ideas but, in our opinion, the Wikileaks experience proves the advantages of Open Data.

Fighting for transparency through organisations who exist on the outer fringes or even outside of the law, create just another veil of secrecy. Indeed, recent events regarding the leak of unredacted Wikileaks data show how corrosive forcibly breaking through the layers of data protection can be for any organisation. Many within the news industry admire (praise is too strong a word) Wikileaks’ cause and argue that if journalism was performing its intended function then there would be no need for a Wikileaks.

Which brings me back to the newsroom. Unlike the web, the newsroom is not structured to handle large streams of data. The big data stories in the UK have been the Iraq War Logs, Cablegate and MPs expenses. These have been stories because the existence of the data itself is a story. Big data dumps can make headlines, masses of data being produced from the public sector daily need to be mined to find stories. Newsrooms don’t do that. Because as a journalist you have to pitch the ‘story’ to your editor, not content.

The news medium produces content for stories not stories from content. But the web feeds off content in the form of data. And online social networks are bringing the content to the user directly. News organisations need to work with this content, this data, these facts in plain sight as “unlike the content of most Wikileaks documents, Open Data are almost always data that should surely be open” and therein lies your public service responsibility. In the case of the data story on EU structural funds by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the Financial Times, an Italian reporter who picked up the story, Luigi Reggi writes:

The use of open, machine-processable and linked-data formats have unexpected advantages in terms of transparency and re-use of the data .. What is needed today is the promotion among national and local authorities of the culture of transparency and the raising of awareness of the benefits that could derive from opening up existing data and information in a re-usable way.

What distinguishes Open Data from “mere” transparency is reuse

The Open Data Movement has taken off. Of course a lot more needs to be done but the awareness and realisation of the need to publish public information is born of the web and will die with the web (i.e. never). Marco states that “In practice, public data can be opened at affordable costs, in a useful and easily usable way, only if it is in digital format … When data are opened, the problem becomes to have everybody use them, in order to actually realise Open Government.”

The relationship between media and state means that the traditional media bodies (broadcast and print) should be the ones to take that place. Why? Because it requires an organisational structure, the one thing the web cannot give to citizen journalists. It can give us the tools (print, audio and video upload and curation) but it cannot provide us with the external structures (editorship, management, legal, time and expertise) needed to unearth news not just package it. News organisations need to mine the data because structures are needed to find the truth behind data as it is not transparent to the average citizen. News needs to provide the analysis, insight and understanding.

There is not automatic cause-effect relationship between Open Data and real transparency and democracy … while correct interpretation of public data from the majority of average citizens is absolutely critical, the current situation, even in countries with (theoretical) high alphbetization and Internet access rates, is one in which most people still lack the skills needed for such analysis … It is necessary that those who access Open Data are in a position to actually understand them and use them in their own interest.

So why is ‘open’ the new ‘social’? Because services who make data open make it useful and usable. Open Data is about Open Democracy and allowing communities to engage through digital services built around the idea of openness and empowerment. News needs to get on board. But just as social was an experiment which some got right, so getting Open Data right will be the deal breaker for digital news. Just take a look at some of these:

And I’m sure there are many more examples out there. I’m not saying news organisations have to do the same. Open Data, as you can see, is a global movement and just as ‘social’ triggered the advance of web industry into the news industries’ territory so news should look to ‘open’ to claim some of that back.

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