Is creating jobs?

The recent announcement that might shut down due to budget cut-backs got me thinking about whether or not open-data was really all worth it. Clive Thompson had just written an essay in Wired a few days earlier in late March where he argued the economic merits of opening government data. The argument was largely repeated by RWW a few days later. Put the data out there and companies will add value and resell services – so the argument goes.

But what are some of the stumbling blocks to realizing this Utopian vision of open-data equaling new information jobs?

I found a recent report out of Europe which does a comparison of open data strategies among five European countries. What was the main take-away from that report? “Many policy makers also recognize that the precise economic impact of open data for their country, and specific sectors or organizations, remains largely unclear.” Bummer, so what do we do now? The major barriers cited in the report include a closed government culture, limited data quality, and yes uncertainty about the economic impact. Sorry Mr. Thompson, but your anecdotal evidence just doesn’t seem to be convincing the policy-makers just yet. From some of my own anecdotal conversations with journalists there’s a recurring complaint that not a lot of data of value is actually put on Why not?

Maybe the data that needs to be on to create those new jobs we all want  really isn’t there at all. Reading Janet Vertesi’s new article on The Value of Data, may offer some clues on that. In her article, she argues that how data is collected influences how that data is shared downstream. As some data becomes commodified we sometimes forget that data (including government data) is often produced through a set of social processes (e.g. sampling strategies like selecting when to record and what to focus on). How that data is collected, the culture, and norms of its recording are important to how it becomes shared. It’s quite possible that the most valuable government data assets just aren’t being shared either because (1) the culture of their production does not easily allow for it, or (2) there’s money to be made by the government itself reselling those assets.

We need to think about the modes of production more when designing future open-data portals: the value of that sharing, and its ultimate impact may depend on it.