What do we mean by ‘open data’?

‘Open data’ is a popular term right now. It’s also ambiguous. What does it mean?

Open means ‘free,’ as in ‘free speech.’ We are all entitled to it by fundamental right.

Open means accessible. We have “open access” to things like roads and libraries — these are public goods, and anyone should be able to use them. Likewise for our computer technology: open data can be accessed not just by users of one system, but by users of an open set of systems.

Open does NOT necessarily mean ‘anything goes.’ You’ve gotta return books to the library, and in good condition too. Even on open roads, there are speed limits, and eventually there are tolls, plus construction and cleanup crews, etc. You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Etc.

Open does NOT necessarily mean ‘free’ as in ‘free beer.’ For something to exist in an open state, a lot of energy and resources must go into keeping it so. Those resources must come from somewhere (and we don’t assume they will automagically crowdsource themselves).


Open data can mean many things, but at its core, open data entails:

Availability: open data must be available as a whole, presumably downloadable over the internet. The data must also be available in a convenient and modifiable form. (There can be reasonable reproduction costs associated with certain kinds of access to open data.)

Reuse and Redistribution: open data must be provided under terms that permit reuse and redistribution, including the intermixing with other datasets. There should be no discrimination against fields of endeavor or against persons or groups. The data must be machine-readable. The data can be licensed to prevent changes, and/or to ensure clear documentation of changes.


Openness entails a state of possibility.

By making data available for anyone to re-use it in new ways, we can dramatically increase its potential value.

We assert this as a given: the production of open community resource data can, will, and should happen, one way or another.

We also assert that such production should occur in such a way that its costs are sustainably carried into the future; and furthermore that the means of production should be accessible to and shaped by local stakeholders. This is, after all, data about their community’s resources.

For the purposes of Open Referral, the concept of ‘open data’ is itself open to some degree of interpretation. Essentially, we are asking: how should this data be open? (If it is to be published in bulk for free, can premium real-time access via API require a fee? If the market won’t fully cover costs of its production in this way, should the government be expected to subsidize its production, in order to ensure access and quality? Etc.)

Posted in: Overview