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The topic of open data has gained importance in the public sector in the last 25 years. It refers to the idea that certain data should be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone for any reason. Open data can improve transparency and accountability of a governance structure by making information more accessible to citizens, which can improve trust in government and public institutions.

It is unimaginable in the Western world that information regarding public procurements, parliamentary hearings and government budget planning is not publicly available. Transparency is critical to ensure trust in a democratic government. There are various indexes that allow us to assess the transparency of a government.

For example, the OECD OURdata Index assesses governments’ efforts to implement open data in three critical areas – Openness, Usefulness and Re-usability. It is used to assess OECD countries’ activities regarding transparency, accountability and data reuse.

Open data can fuel innovation and stimulate economic growth by providing entrepreneurs, researchers, and developers with access to data that can be used to create new products and services. The 2020 report on the Economic Value of Open Data estimated that the open data market size was at €184bn, forecasted to reach between €199.5bn – €334.21bn by 2025.

Today, open data is already used to fuel the development of artificial intelligence in areas like agriculture, climate, and language technology and to provide services in areas like insurance, transportation, and energy production.

We have seen exceptional growth in the publication and use of open data for many years. In Estonia, the number of use cases for open data has increased by more than 35 times in the last four years, from 40 datasets to over 1,550 datasets. Such a trend is evident worldwide and was, to some extent, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of open data in addressing global crises. Governments and organisations around the world shared data related to the pandemic openly and collaboratively, leading to more rapid and effective responses to the crisis.

Increasing expectations has paved the way for the concept of high-value datasets – data with high economic and societal impact are to be prioritised by governments. The European Commission defined the first six categories of high-value datasets in 2023 – a trend that is likely to continue.

A major player in the field has been the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) which was founded in 2004 to promote open access to information and open data. The OKF has played an important role in advocating for open data policies and supporting the development of tools and platforms for sharing and collaborating on open data.

Among other things, OKF has played a major role in the development of CKAN, which is the world’s leading open-source data management system and is used by many governments and organisations around the world. Thus, the focus may have been on sharing and reusing data, but the process has resulted in a global community that shares and reuses resources and tools created.

Open data is typically expected to be machine-readable and without any restrictions from copyright, patents, or other mechanisms of control, but this may not be the case. An important mechanism to clarify how data can be used and whether there are any restrictions to its use are licences. Licencing terms are gaining focus as more and more non-governmental organisations are actively making data available.

Examples are abundant, among others Coco – the large-scale object detection, segmentation, and captioning dataset, and YouTube-8M Segments dataset. Moreover, this has sparked new ways to collaborate – for instance, Kaggle allows users to find datasets they want to use in building AI models, publish datasets, work with other data scientists and machine learning engineers, and enter competitions to solve data science challenges.

Open data has become a global movement and gained momentum around the world, with both governments and private sector organisations recognising the value of making data more accessible and usable.

The past 25 years have seen significant progress in the development and promotion of open data policies and practices. In years to come, the private sector is to play a more central role in the publication of open data. Open data has become an increasingly important part of our lives, and its potential for driving innovation, economic growth, and social change is only just beginning.

Ott Velsberg

Ott is Government Chief Data Officer of Estonia

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