Last week, Ireland became the most recent nation to open up their books to the public by launching its first national data portal, joining a growing open data trend. Raw information, that was once usually only available upon request, is being published online in an effort to improve government transparency, accountability and efficiency.
Ireland's offering the data free and with no restrictions on its use. Giving the public a channel into institutional information, advocates say, can create greater participation in the political process, improve public services and even catch instances of fraud and waste. And, economists say that open data can bring trillions of dollars to the table.
More nations are embracing open data. In 2010, only a handful of countries maintained data sites. In 2014, there were at least 56.
Sources: Data.gov and the Open Government Partnership. Launch dates collected from best available source. Portals with no total count of datasets were not included.
Ireland’s new portal contains information on everything from local election results to places to throw away Christmas trees and it's part of the Open Government National Action Plan, a strategy to help restore public trust in the government. In a county where 81 percent of residents surveyed said that corruption was widespread, according to a 2014 report by the European Commission, this could represent an important shift in attitude. And, as Ireland slowly climbs out of recession, there is hope that open data will bring along financial benefits as well.
Researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute estimated the value of open data globally in 2013 at about $3 trillion. The researchers said the fields that would benefit the most from public data are energy, transportation and education. In total, they reported that open data sites could bring up to $1.1 trillion to the United States, $900 billion to Europe and $1.7 trillion for the rest of the world.
Lateral Economics, an economic policy organization, released a similar report in June estimating that open data would increase the output of G20 nations by $13 trillion over the next five years.
These enormous figures are just estimates and it’s difficult to gauge how much effect open data has amid the tangle of economic forces. But a growing amount of evidence suggests that open data could actually translate into dollars.
Climate.com, a website that uses public information from the U.S. government, was thought up by two former Google engineers in 2006. It works to analyze and predict weather trends for the global agricultural industry, and even provides an insurance service that pays farmers automatically for bad weather that could affect their crops. Monsanto bought the company in 2013 for $930 million.
Open data also has the potential to save money by improving government services and exposing fraud. In 2007, David Eaves, an open data advocate, used government information to help uncover a group of fraudulent charities in Canada. Altogether they had sheltered $3.2 billion from the Canadian Revenue Service over three years through tax-exempt status.
The City of San Francisco, one of the first major U.S. cities to embrace the data initiative, announced in 2012, via Jay Nath, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer’s, Twitter feed that it had saved $1 million a year with their data portal. By publishing real-time public transportation data online, they were able to reduce the number of calls to 311 for information by more than 20 percent, which at $2 a phone call, quickly added up.
While some data initiatives have struggled to survive skeptical officials and technical breakdowns, the initiative continues to grow. Many countries established their open data programs through commitments to the Open Government Partnership, an international coalition of nations promoting transparency, which has expanded from eight countries in 2011 to 64 in 2014. And at least five new members, most in the developing world, have made commitments to launch their own portals.