Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why "Sharing" Government Spatial Data Is Not As Easy As It Sounds.

I really enjoyed this talk by Tim Berners-Lee - and encourage you to listen to it when you have some time. He is a unique man with an incredible vision. In the talk, he mentions the value of linked data. He describes how easy it is from a technological standpoint to link data. One of the points that he makes is the value of raw data. He is particularly interested in having government agencies making raw data available to the public. (In fact he leads the audience in a chant of "Raw Data Now"). He states that raw data can be a valuable resource to businesses, citizens and other government agencies.

I agree with Berners-Lee that raw data is increasingly valuable. (And made more so when it is linked to other data). And I agree with his statement that government organizations are a great resource for this data but are generally reluctant to share. Frequently, the issue has to do with money. Agencies are reluctant to share their data because they want to at least recover the costs associated with collecting and maintaining the data.

However, even if money is not an issue, I believe that there are a number of legitimate legal (and policy) concerns that government agencies must deal with when sharing data . . . and these are not often not appreciated. For example, whether the agency will be held responsible if there are errors in the data or if the data is improperly used. Or what privacy concerns will be raised by sharing the data. Unfortunately, the law in this area is frequently uncertain or outdated given today's technology.

These concerns become even greater when spatial data is involved, because (i) the technology supporting its use is still relatively new, so many questions are just now being asked - for example, what is a reasonable expectation of privacy with respect our location data, (ii) spatial data sets are so versatile that they can be used for a number of different applications, even if they are not intended - or suitable - for such use and (iii) spatial data has historically been associated with military and intelligence matters - which raises many national security concerns.

Therefore, the challenge is to develop a legal and policy framework that is robust enough to address these legitimate concerns while flexible enough to permit the level and quality of data sharing and linked data that Berners-Lee describes in the video. (I frequently describe this as "getting your lawyer to yes".) The question is, can it be done?

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