Why “set the default to open”? Because information is a public good


One of the core principles for governments to use in developing a meaningful open data policy is that “the default should be set to open.” What this means is that governments should be proactive in providing access to the information they collect and produce, unless there’s a very clearly defined reason why not to do so. (Specific reasons to withhold data are already spelled out in existing public records and public meetings laws.) Why should we set the default to open?

Grand Canyon, Toroweap Overlook
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

For the same reason that we don’t limit who can walk on our streets, or who receives the services of our police and fire departments. Information is a quintessential public good in that it doesn’t get used up when people consume it. In fact, the opposite is true: The more that people use government data, the more value it provides all of us.

Different communities of people use government data to provide different kinds of public value.

Watchdogs and journalists

For government watchdogs, both in journalism and beyond, government data lets us provide the public good of monitoring government for evidence of corruption, favoritism or inefficiency. This is the public good created by transparency: When officials know that they’re being watched, they are less likely to act illegally or unethically. Here at Sunlight we try to support this good of public supervision of government ethics through our tools to watch flows of money and influence.

Social service nonprofits

For providers of social services, government data lets us improve program quality — and the value we’re receiving for our tax and charity dollars. Increasingly, philanthropic funders seek to see a demonstration of an organization’s effectiveness in terms of measurable metrics: clear data on need and an organization’s effectiveness at changing outcomes. Open data helps organizations see where needs remain unaddressed and evaluate program effectiveness. At the same time, open government data also allows organizations to find new ways to see old problems by making creative thinking inexpensive: It encourages collaboration and “remixing” for innovation rather than building from scratch each time. Instead of needing to gather the data themselves, organizations can use open government data to examine relationships between different kinds of social problems. Using government datasets to explore the relationship between, say, local poverty levels, transportation availability and job training programs would allow us to envision new interventions and approaches to complex issues like unemployment.


For public policy researchers, government data allows for the development of precise and actionable policy recommendations on the basis of targeted data analysis. Many researchers like to work with government datasets because this information is cheap, publicly-endorsed and pertinent to people’s lives. When we make relevant data easy to access, we increase the ability of think tanks, academic institutions and independent researchers to provide insights into important local problems — and often for free! (The scientific research community is also working hard to make open research data a reality.)


For regular people who feel like there’s nothing they can do about government policies they don’t like – and who feel frustrated and angry with government as a result – open data can provide new ways for them to have influence on government. Sometimes this idea of increased public access to lawmaking is done quite directly, as was the case with Project Open Data, the Github public access point where people are encouraged to “improve this [policy] content” by suggesting specific revisions to the federal administration’s open data policy. Sometimes this comes in the form of making it easier to find out when a decision-making governmental body will hold a public hearing on a subject of interest, so a citizen can attend and testify, or at least contact their representative at the point where their opinion most matters.

Highway cloverleaf interchange
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.


The national business community sees a host of benefits to open data. Some of these benefits are outlined in Joel Guerin’s new book Open Data Now. The US Chamber of Commerce is similarly optimistic. To the extent that “data is the new oil,” open data is a new source that particularly levels the playing field for newer and smaller entrants, giving nimble organizations the tools for identifying and taking advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities.

Government itself

Governments benefit indirectly from all of these uses of open data — through improved citizen experience, more evidence-driven research, improved non-profit service delivery and economic development. However, in addition to the indirect benefits of open data, government can also be a very direct beneficiary of setting the default to open by employing open data to crowdsource information that directly affects public service delivery. An interesting application I saw recently was a public-private partnership in Indianapolis, in which a new neighborhood-focused chat tool creates an electronic “neighborhood watch” that allows residents to contact both their neighbors and public safety officials. At the same time, this portal allows public safety officials to communicate with small geographic groups about very local issues, such as a water-main break. This public-private partnership — and the enhanced public-government relationship it enables — was based on city government embracing the possibilities inherent in a greater two-way flow of information. While many complications remain in the effort to spread these kinds of innovations more broadly, they point to ways that government can become more effective, more efficient and closer to the people it works for.

People sitting in New York's Central Park on a sunny day
Photo Credit: Kevin Harber.


So whether you’re a researcher, an activist, a social service provider, an entrepreneur or just someone who feels like it’s hard to have an influence on government (sometimes even if you’re already in government!), helping your government get its data online is a public service. The more this good is available, the more good it can do.

Besides, it’s already YOUR data. You just need to ask for it.