Why Defining “Open” Matters

July 30, 2013


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By Herb Lainchbury (Guest Blogger)

On June 18, 2013, our Canadian government took important steps that increased the commitment to open data in Canada. Along with launching the next-generation of its open data portal, data.gc.ca, the government also released a new open data licence called the Open Government Licence - Canada v2.0. It is a very readable and user-friendly licence, and the feature that most pleases me is its conformance to the Open Definition.

Why does this matter?

It might seem reasonable to expect that if a publisher publishes data, makes it accessible, readable and explicitly grants permission to use the data with an accompanying licence, it has done what’s required to make its data usable by others. This might be true, if that publisher were the only publisher in the world. People would access and review the data, read the licence and hopefully understand whether it grants them the permission they need for their project—and then use the data (or not) depending on that analysis.

However, because multiple publishers exist, the above approach breaks down, in at least two important ways. First, having multiple publishers means multiple licences. Each time they use data, consumers need to read and understand each licence from each publisher whose data they want: a time-consuming process that can be difficult and may require the help of a lawyer. Second, for interoperability, this presents an even more complex issue. If a data consumer wants to combine data from two or more sources, they need to understand if they have permission to combine the data and if the data licences are compatible with each other. Can data be combined to create something new and if so, what are the restrictions? What happens if the licences are in different jurisdictions; which laws apply? If a data consumer must consult a lawyer for each project in order to understand these issues, the cost for most people and most projects is too high.

Which brings us to Open Definition. In 2005 a community of open data enthusiasts created what is called the Open Definition, based on a similar definition created for open source software in 1998. It sets out principles that define “openness” in relation to data and content. Knowing that a licence is conformant with the Open Definition solves the problems of having to understand multiple licences and knowing whether the licences are interoperable. A user can ensure that the data they want to use is usable and interoperable by simply checking if the licence is conformant to the definition.

The whole point of open data is to release it so that it can and will be used. An organization's open data strategy should then be working toward that end result, encouraging and making it as easy as possible for people to use the data. Congratulations to the people within the Government of Canada who helped make this happen. I think it will be well worth the effort.

Herb Lainchbury is an Associate at Better Outcomes Consulting Inc., a member of the Government of Canada’s Advisory Panel on Open Government, and a member of the Open Definition Advisory Panel.

The opinions expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Government of Canada.

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Submitted by Anonymous on August 17, 2013 - 5:59 AM

I fully support the initiative taking place. However, there is nothing in the licence that talks about transparency, accountability and engagement. That is what Open Government is all about. What we have is a simplistic assumption that data and this licence will result in Open Government. In my research, I notice that the Canadian licence is based upon the UK's Open Government's model. At least they mentioned that the Open Government licence is for Public Sector Information. Also, what was Version 1 - it seems it was only a proposal and never in effect.

Submitted by open-ouvert on August 21, 2013 - 1:04 PM

The Open Government Licence is one of the two foundational commitments of the Open Government Action Plan, the other being the Open Government Directive. The Directive (to be issued this Fall) will provide guidance to government departments and agencies to maximize the proactive release of Government of Canada information. The Licence will, when fully implemented, give users an unrestricted right to reuse that information. Together, the Directive, Licence and the other 10 commitments from Canada's Open Government Action Plan are designed to help strengthen transparency, openness and accountability in the Government of Canada. Currently, the Licence applies to the content on the data.gc.ca portal (data and information); however, as stated in the Action Plan, the goal is that all federal departments adopt the Licence and eventually remove restrictions on the reuse of published Government of Canada information (data, info, websites, publications). Finally, Version 1.0 of the Licence came into effect when the Open Data Portal originally launched in 2011. It was replaced by Version 2.0 when the next-generation data.gc.ca was launched in June 2013.

Submitted by Anonymous on August 05, 2013 - 4:30 AM

I am curious to know why Open Government Licence and not Open Government Data Licence. Open Government is all about transparency, accountability and engagement. Open data is only a component for these principles. Also, Open Government does not need a licence, as it is a philosophy and a movement. Only data needs to be properly licensed. As a result, there is need to properly title the license. If there is a need to talk about Open Government, mention it in a preamble.

Submitted by Anonymous on August 27, 2013 - 7:39 AM

Très bon rappel sur l'utilisation des données. En effet il faut que l'utilisation des données soit bien définie afin qu'il n'y ait pas d'abus.

Submitted by open-ouvert on July 31, 2013 - 12:37 PM

Thanks for writing this blog post Herb and for your help towards licence interoperability.

Submitted by open-ouvert on July 31, 2013 - 12:39 PM

Herb, nous vous remercions d’avoir rédigé ce blogue et de votre aide dans le domaine de l’interopérabilité en matière de licence.