How to open data

A quick primer on how data holders can open up their data. How to start small but think big.

Here are some short suggestions for taking the initial steps of opening up your data. If you are looking for practical, more detailed advice, have a look at the Open Data Handbook, which includes all the material on this page and a whole lot more. The handbook also discusses the legal, social and technical aspects of open data.

Three key rules

There are three key rules we recommend following when opening up data:

  1. Keep it simple. Start out small, simple and fast. There is no requirement that every dataset must be made open right now. Starting out by opening up just one dataset, or even one part of a large dataset, is fine — of course, the more datasets you can open up the better. Remember this is about innovation. Moving as rapidly as possible is good because it means you can build momentum and learn from experience — innovation is as much about failure as success and not every dataset will be useful.
  2. Engage early and engage often. Engage with actual and potential users and re-users of the data as early and as often as you can, be they citizens, businesses or developers. This will ensure that the next iteration of your service is as relevant as it can be. It is essential to bear in mind that much of the data will not reach ultimate users directly, but rather via ‘info-mediaries’. These are the people who take the data and transform or remix it to be presented. For example, most of us don’t want or need a large database of GPS coordinates, we would much prefer a map. Thus, engage with infomediaries first. They will re-use and repurpose the material.
  3. Address common fears and misunderstandings. This is especially important if you are working with or within large institutions such as government. When opening up data you will encounter plenty of questions and fears. It is important to (a) identify the most important ones and (b) address them at as early a stage as possible.

Four key steps

These are in very approximate order — many of the steps can be done simultaneously:

  1. Choose your dataset(s). Choose the dataset(s) you plan to make open. Keep in mind that you can (and may need to) return to this step if you encounter problems at a later stage.
  2. Apply an open license.
    • Determine what intellectual property rights exist in the data.
    • Apply a suitable ‘open’ license that licenses all of these rights and supports the definition of openness.
    • NB: if you can’t do this, go back to step 1 and try a different dataset.
  3. Make the data available. In bulk and in a useful format. You may also wish to consider alternative ways of making it available such as via an application programming interface (API).
  4. Make it discoverable. Post on the web and perhaps organise a central catalogue to list your open datasets.

Get the Open Data Handbook

The handbook introduces you to the legal, social and technical aspects of open data. It can be used by anyone but is especially useful for those working with government data. It discusses the why, what and how of open data — why to go open, what open is, and the how to do open.

Additional resources

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