02/25/2014 11:41 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

Unlocking the Benefits of Open Data

This past weekend marked the third annual Open Data Day, an international event that gathers people around the globe each year in an effort to support and encourage the adoption of open data policies by the world's governments and institutions. Open data is defined as "data that can be freely used, shared, and built-on by anyone, anywhere, for any purpose". With this in mind, over the weekend, designers, coders, statisticians, and those interested in open data participated in workshops and open data hackathons. Ultimately, each event provided participants with the chance to "write applications, liberate data, create visualizations, and publish analyses using public open data." In other words, participants were given a space to come together and collaborate on new ways to visualize, analyze, and spread information throughout the world.

All in all, Open Data Day connected over 100 cities on five continents. Prior to this weekend's events, the Open Knowledge Foundation suggested that some of the hackathon projects were going to include app making in the United Kingdom, environmental data in Denmark; transportation data in Argentina; and data expeditions on gold revenue, energy supply data, and public budgets in Burkina Faso, among others. However, although these workshops and hackathons seem to be successful in their attempts to promote collaboration, increased transparency, and access to information, much more needs to be done in order to truly accomplish these goals.

Indeed, over the past few years, several steps have been taken to make these goals a reality. For example, the African Development Bank launched its Africa Information Highway Initiative, the Nigerian government jumpstarted its Open Data Development Initiative, and U.S. President Barack Obama signed an Open Data Executive Order. Nonetheless, despite these gains in making data more open and accessible to the public, many local, regional, and national governments are still reluctant to open up their data. Furthermore - and perhaps most importantly - it seems as though there is a lack of public interest in open data.

Why is this the case? It's possible that this lack of interest could be attributed to cynicism or institutional distrust. It's also possible that people are apathetic or indifferent towards open data because they don't understand what open data is or how it can be used. Regardless of whether or not this is true, one can certainly see that there has been a shift in the way governments publish information, as it's more often than not being released in the form of raw data rather than in reports or other user-friendly formats. In light of this shift, should we approach open data from a different, more tangible perspective?

One way to make open data more appealing and user-friendly is by engaging the world's youth, who as of now seem to have a very limited role in advancing open data initiatives. As a generation that has grown up working with computers and regularly connecting online with people around the world, young people in particular have the potential to provide a unique contribution within this space. Thus, the benefits and possibilities of opening, spreading, and sharing data should be promoted among young people throughout the world. For example, if "open data youth hubs" existed in colleges and universities around the globe, young people could come together to learn more about the benefits of open data, and then take that knowledge and share it with each other. These discussions could potentially result in very tangible collaborations, as certain global challenges could be resolved by connecting young people with open data and development experts, effectively leveraging open government data while simultaneously allowing young people to connect on a global scale.

Ultimately, opening and spreading data results in increased transparency, participation, and collaboration, all of which have irrevocable and immeasurable benefits. However, if people aren't interested in open data, governments and institutions around the world aren't going to be encouraged or inspired to adopt open data policies. Events like Open Data Day provide wonderful opportunities to spread awareness about open data, and hackathons and workshops are great ways to engage and connect open data experts and interested people; however, people who don't consider themselves tech-savvy may not be interested in attending a hackathon or may not understand how to "write applications, liberate data, create visualizations, and publish analyses." Moving forward, it's important to promote these benefits in a way that can be universally appealing, so that anyone can share ideas, spread information, and participate in a more transparent and collaborative way.