What is an open data policy?
The recent executive order signed by Mayor Bell requires all Birmingham city agencies to publish data such as financial information, safety, traffic flow, and potentially so much more. Birmingham’s open data policy will be powered in part by California-based startup OpenGov, and in part by CKAN. Birmingham’s open data policy ultimately hopes to allow “real-time data release,” in “open formats… that allow for automated processing, … at no cost.”
What are the benefits?
Open data doesn’t just allow those suspicious of our government to take a closer look. It lets anyone who wants to solve a problem (like the 280-20/59 overpass, hint hint!) see patterns that might not be instantly visible. Open data lets people who want to find better parking spots find them, and help others find them too. It opens (no pun intended) near-limitless possibilities to make Birmingham, and by extension the greater metropolitan area, more livable.
But the benefits don’t end here. Open formats don’t get a lot of publicity because the free and open source software movement doesn’t market itself as sexy or cool. But totally free, community improved software brings just as much benefit as totally free, community driven city improvements. It frees users from convoluted licensing and copyright liabilities that sometimes end up costing people thousands just for mistakes (if you want to keep your blog clean, but are unable to open-source your content, then check out this guide to copyright and the DMCA).
It can’t be all sunshine and rainbows, can it?
Making this data available will take some time, true. A beta platform is on track for release this summer, but it won’t have complete data sets immediately. And privacy concerns are, in my book, never unfounded. But Birmingham is taking this into consideration. The text of the executive order intentionally includes provisions and definitions specifically made to grapple with privacy issues. That’s not a final answer, but to see what will happen, all we can do is wait.