The open data movement extends the ideals of open source to government data and, ultimately, all the world’s knowledge.
For as long as governments have kept records, citizens have debated over access to those records. When the ancient Mesopotamians started recording data on clay tablets, I have no doubt that lively discussions erupted over who should or should not get to see those tablets. Information, after all, is power, and data is the first step on the path of information.
But data has a funny way of becoming more powerful with more eyes looking at it. Enlightened government eventually came to understand that the whole society could benefit from giving access to outside viewers who might find insights. The rise of democratic governments, where the people (at least in theory) set the rules, and the concept of press freedom brought more attention to the need for public access, leading to the development of massive national archives, as well as university libraries, presidential libraries, and other portals that led to data acquired through government funding.
Then came the information age, and the volume of data, as well as the tools for accessing it, became so vast and complicated that the system quite lost its moorings. Back when data was primarily stored and communicated through paper (or clay tablets), the “format” as we use the term today was much less critical. When government data came to be stored electronically, format became a point of control, and we are still trying to work out what that means and what to do about it.
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