Open all hours

Open by Justin Marty

Open by Justin Marty

I’ve been mulling over the nature of Open Data, Open Source and just general openness for a while now and, on the whole, these are admirable concepts. Access to data and software can only bring benefits for the most part. I detest control exerted through access to information in particular, with rigid top down hierarchies being top of my list of pet hates. Access to government information, for example, can only improve the way governments do business. But there has always been something niggling in the back of my mind and that is the need for confidentiality and privacy in some circumstances. I detest the argument that if you have nothing to hide, there is no need for such protection, an argument frequently used when talking about the draconian use of DNA databases and the growing desire by governments and organisations to amass data about people. And this week, in the week that data.gov.uk went live (a fantastic resource providing open access to government data), I’ve seen a couple of stories which reinforce the need for a pragmatic approach to information; one size certainly does not fit all and not everything should be open all hours. If we are going to open things up, there are implications which need to be carefully examined.

Firstly, a case on the Victorian Society website of the owner of a listed building who submitted a planning application. Replete with plans and high quality photographs, the application number was duly published in the local newspaper and the detailed submission, including the photographs, made public by the local authority. Within ten days, the obviously empty house had been burgled, the thieves using the address as published and the photographs as a guide. Numerous period fixtures and fittings were taken, presumably having been identified as easy pickings from the photographs which showed the house obviously vacant midway through renovations. Surely, this is a case of too much information being placed in the public domain.

Secondly, an interesting article on Open Access to scientific publications. Whilst I love reading a vast range of material on all sorts of topics, largely via Google Reader, it must be appreciated that online publication is not free; there are still costs associated with publishing online and these must be bourne somehow. One suggestion is to move towards an author pays model with publications free to end users, a model that could have severe implications for heritage publications if the costs are too high. And of course, a world full of poor quality articles from rich authors who can afford to publish, with excellent articles from those who cannot afford to pay the publication costs falling by the wayside is indeed a more ‘open’ world for end users but a diminished world at the same time.

Finally, following on from the second point, there is the Ordnance Survey, who are currently undertaking a consultation on their future after recent revelations. I wholeheartedly agree that an open access model for spatial data would be beneficial for the most part, especially for the heritage sector where funds are limited. Crucially though, the quality of the mapping must be maintained; simply updating OS holdings costs an arm and a leg and if their income stream is decimated, my concern is that quality will suffer. Other commentators, such as Richard Fairhurst, see other considerable problems arising from any open release of certain OS products. It is certainly not as straightforward as some of the posts on campaign blogs/websites such as Free Our Data make out.

So, whilst I am a firm believer in openness, I temper that with the observation that having everything accessible for all and for no cost is not the best way to proceed in all cases; not all information should be available in this way. And some information such as genetic sequences of the population at large should not be collated in the first place let alone be made available, even to those such as law enforcement agencies. Information is a vital resource in this digital world and it’s creation, use and provision of access to it need to be considered carefully on a case by case basis. Most definitely not open all hours in all cases.