Reasons to Not Release Data, Part 9: “Already” Public Data

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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 “Already” Public Data. (Kudos if you find the Easter Egg.)


35. It’s already public
A. Anyone can access records during working hours at our government building
  • “Is that the most efficient way to share information? How much staff time does it take to help people access documents during working hours? Have you thought about the benefits of allowing those people to do their own searches through a computer, saving your staff time?”

  • There’s also considerable cost saving available from reducing the amount of paper and printer ink your government uses. Learn about some examples of how electronic records are already saving local governments money.

  • “We’re looking to help open up the information beyond working hours so that it can be accessible to folks who wouldn’t be able to visit during the day. Even researchers or those who need this information for their day jobs might not be able to come during work hours and there are many others who might also find the information useful or important to their work who are unable to make this trip. If we could offer them access over the Internet, they could access the information when they need it, freeing up your staff for other work.”

B. It’s available on LexisNexis or through another provider / You can buy it from X company for a fee
  • “This places restrictions on accessing the data — meaning it is not really open because it lives behind barriers. Paying for access (either to the document or for the software) privileges those who can pay and keeps the data from the public commons. Needing to register or license data or software for access also keeps it from being accessible freely to anyone by setting arbitrary requirements on the data users. Open access means that any member of the public can come and interact with your data without barriers.”

  • If there’s concern about the safety of the data or their systems, look to our #WhyOpenData post addressing questions of controlling data accuracy and misuse.

  • “Publishing in an open format helps people make full use of the data from both a technical and research perspective.”

  • “Open licenses (or releasing data into the public commons) not only ensures that more people will be able to access the information, but that they’ll understand more clearly, upfront, what their rights are, limiting potential conflicts over ownership, iteration, and reuse.”

    • For more about questions of ownership, look to these posts that cover responding to the legal challenges of opening data.

  • “Can we get that data from the external source, and link it with our other data? (If not, there’s a problem, because it means the data is not open!)”

  • “Can we have the same data that you sent to the external organization?”

  • “Why do you use this provider? Perhaps there are more open solutions for the services you get from them that we can explore.”

36. That’s what FOIA is for
  • “By proactively sharing information, especially if it is commonly requested, you could reduce the number of FOIA requests you have to respond to — often by a non-trivial amount.”

  • “If you service a lot of FOI requests, you’re in a great position to identify what data the public wants (often, the data they request the most). Sharing that information publicly and online will help reduce repetitive requests on your staff and likely will improve your relationship with the public.”

37. We make enough available now
A. We are an open government
  • “Being an open government is great! But do you share open data? Can we talk about what that means and how it helps bolster open government?”

  • “Can you think of a time when you needed to get information from a group within your agency? What type of data? What did you need it for? Can you tell me about a time when you needed information that you couldn’t get, that you needed to do your job? Open data can help with these kinds of internal problems in addition to helping make government more open to the public.”

  • “Releasing open data can reduce unwanted traffic on government websites, particularly if the only way to get data is to scrape it. Scrapers can be put a burden on web infrastructure, causing issues for IT staff. You might look at Scraperwiki to see if anyone has built a scraper that could be impacting your website performance. If you find the presence of scrapers, consider it the way you would a FOI request. The data most frequently scrapped is the data that some people have prioritized as important. Releasing that data is a great way to reduce burdens on your website and staff and to respond directly to public requests.”

38. But we released APIs!
A. We’re more interested in APIs
  • APIs can be good, but that’s not the only thing we are talking about here. Providing open data helps encourage use and analysis of the information in a different way than an API does. I’m happy to talk more about the differences.”

B. There’s no API to that system
  • “APIs aren’t the only thing you need. We can still open up data in other ways.”

  • “It doesn’t necessarily need a public API. What about behind-the-scenes database (SQL) interfaces? It may also be possible to export data as flat files and dropping them into some well-known place for later transformation.”

39. Oh, you mean make a data portal? We have one of those.
  • “Great! Is the data on it open? Are you sure you’re providing information without restrictions on access or reuse? Have you considered other best practices that will help encourage people to access and use the data? (Or other data sets that could be added?) I’d love to talk with you more about those.”


Stay tuned next week for our next #WhyOpenData post on Say What?