May 12, 2010
The Power of Open Data to Find Problems in Complicated Environments, and Possibly Even to Prevent Them from Emerging: How Open Data Saved Canada $3.2 Billion
David Eaves reports in Case Study: How Open Data Saved Canada $3.2 Billion that open data helped expose one of the biggest tax frauds in Canada’s history. He observes "[e]ssentially from before 2005-2007 dozens of charities were operating illegally. Had the data about their charitable receipts been available for the public's routine review, someone in the public might have taken notice and raised a fuss earlier."
In the computer world there is something called Linus' Law, which states: "given enough eyeballs, all bugs (problems) are shallow." The same could be said about many public policy or corruption issues. For many data sets, citizens should not have to make a request. Nor should we have to answer questions about why we want the data. It should be downloadable in its entirety. Not trapped behind some unhelpful search engine. When data is made readily available in machine readable formats, more eyes can look at it. This means that someone on the ground, in the community ... who knows the sector, is more likely to spot something a public servant in another city might not see because they don't have the right context or bandwidth. And if that public servant is not allowed to talk about the issue, then they can share this information with their fellow citizens.
This is the power of open data: The power to find problems in complicated environments, and possibly even to prevent them from emerging.
The case study illustrates Eaves' three laws of open government data:
- If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist.
- If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage.
- If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower.