The lack of access to detailed public data can often limit the best of research across the world. Is providing open access to governmental data the answer to fuel innovation in the public sector and policy design? A recent blog article by Casey Coleman1, Chief Information Officer of United States (US)’s General Services Administrator discusses about US Administration’s new Open data policy which suggests that open data is “publicly available data structured in a way that enables the data to be fully discoverable and usable by end users”. Coleman refers to apps on smartphones as a way that products are being created using government data for the public benefit. Much of this data is available on government websites. In Europe as well, the idea of making public data accessible has been rapidly gaining momentum. In her speech early this year2, European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes said, that “The open data revolution is all about individuals and entrepreneurs and that includes the giving them a role in policy design”. Kroes refers to data as “the new oil” as it is a “fuel for innovation, powering and energizing” Europe’s economy. She argues that open public data can enable transparency and improve public services. She does caution though that this data revolution would come at a cost and would need a thoughtful framework within which to operate. A framework that can ensure that data is openly available for multiple uses over time with similar rules of operation across datasets and users and that respects privacy, confidentiality and security concerns. The European Commission has already started making headway in this direction by gradually opening up more and more government data to the public with the objective of gathering all-Europe data within a one-stop-shop portal. Additionally the Commission is striving to make the results of all European Union-funded research as open access. The efforts of the Queensland government, Australia towards ensuring an open data revolution is also worth highlighting. The Queensland Premier is quoted3 saying that “Sharing data will promote new thinking and inventive solutions to benefit us all”.
Given these developments, it is important for policy practitioners and researchers to consider few critical issues that can affect the realization of innovative policy design in practice. For example, can a standard for data protection and usage be developed especially for sensitive-data such as that related to health? Will there be winners and losers in this arrangement? For example while open data access could encourage creative and innovative policy applications and solutions, can it also highlight policy gaps consequently leading to public distrust and unrest with no suggestion of possible policy solutions? Will an open data sharing practice hamper the data collection process itself and will it affect the functioning of ethical clearance boards? Data being generated by models in the form of future projections for socio-economic, demographic, biophysical scenarios etc. deserves a special mention here. These projections are simply estimates of the likely futures using a series of assumptions and specific methods. In the case that these projections become publicly available, it should be the obligation of the relevant scientists to share the details of their assumptions and limitations while giving out these projections to ensure that the users are equipped with the right information while choosing to use any of these projections.