Reasons to Not Release Data, Part 6: Legality (continued)

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scales of justice

Earlier this month, we shared a crowdsourced collection of the top concerns data advocates have heard when they’ve raised an open data project with government officials at the federal, state, and local level, and we asked for you to share how you’ve responded. Dozens of you contributed to the project, sharing your thoughts on social media, our public Google doc, and even on the Open Data Stack Exchange, where 8 threads were opened to dive deeper into specific subjects.

Drawing from your input, our own experience, and existing materials from our peers at the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership and some data warriors from the UK, we’ve compiled a number of answers — discussion points, if you will — to help unpack and respond to some of the most commonly cited open data concerns. This mash-up of expertise is a work in progress, but we bet you’ll find it a useful conversation starter (or continuer) for your own data advocacy efforts.

Click here to see other posts in this series.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing challenges and responses from our #WhyOpenData list that correspond to different themes. Today’s theme is Legality, continued.

Part 2 of Legality:

23. It’s not classified, but we don’t think it would be good PR to open this
  • “If you are worried about bad PR, be more proactive about good PR. Explain what the data means and why you are opening it.”

  • Share examples where agencies and communities have benefited (or at least not been harmed) by opening their data.

  • Provide disclaimers to protect the agency. Depending on the circumstances, agency staff may want to distance the agency from politically sensitive analysis or errors due to poor data quality. This can be accomplished by a standard disclaimer on the data or a blanket disclaimer clause in the data sharing agreement.

  • Offer to help give credit where it is due. Agency leaders and staff should get credit for supporting community use of information, and explicitly acknowledging data providers or co-hosting online reports will highlight their progressive actions.

  • Offer to give them advance notice of upcoming analysis. An agency can be helpful in confirming that the findings make sense or add any cautions about interpretations, but it should not have veto-power over the release of analysis.

  • Citing case law here may be helpful: there are precedents that government information is supposed to have a standard of openness, and a concern about potential “bad PR” is not a good enough reason for not sharing information with the public.


24. Our lawyers want to make a custom license for this data
  • See if you can talk with the lawyer directly; they may not be familiar with open licenses.

  • Precedents can help. If you can show several peer organizations or agencies that have published under an open license you wish to use, people will be more confident.


25. We spent a lot of [time, staff-power, resources, etc.] collecting this data
  • “Great! Now let’s get more return on that investment by sharing the results!”

  • For more about staff-power concerns, check out this installment from our #WhyOpenData series.


26. We want people to come directly to us so we know why they want the data
  • If there’s the option to open up the data, chances are that the information would already be available under Freedom of Information rules, wherein requestors aren’t required to justify or explain themselves anyway. It’s no different with open data.

  • Once you open your data you can’t track every instance of use. This can be threatening to people who produce this data and need to be able to provide documented proof that they are doing something of value, especially when staffing levels are being reduced. One option is to find someone in power to reassure them that their work is valued and that management understands and accepts that when the data is opened they are trading control for utility.


27. Someone will repackage and sell the information
  • “Why is that necessarily bad, as long as you’re still providing the source data for free and in an open way? Allowing for repackaging of data is a great way to drive economic growth.”

  • Again, if there are concerns about misuse, remind your contact that the government will continue to collect the data and will still be providing it openly for free public access. The government can and should emulate best practice data provision so that the data is available regardless if commercial products are made.


28. We want to control who uses it and what gets done with it (even if it means nothing is done with it)
A. We want your research to benefit us directly, otherwise we don’t want to give you our data / We might want to use the data as part of a timed publicity release
  • “What sort of benefits are you considering? Many of these might actually come with (or be enhanced by) releasing the data openly.”

  • “The information belongs to the public — controlling it to the extent of doing nothing with it is a waste of the taxpayer money spent on collecting it in the first place.”

  • If the concern is about being involved in data use, remind your government contacts that it’s actually a great thing if they want to be a part of informing projects and products that use their information — just as long as they don’t make participation or consultation a pre-condition for data reuse.


29. The federal government/other overlapping agency already has our data
A. Another layer of government is already collecting this data — get it from them, not us
  • “Great — thank you for the advice! Do you know the best way to get in touch with them?”

Stay tuned tomorrow for our next #WhyOpenData post on Accuracy.

Photo via Flickr user Tim Evanson