Google “data as a currency,” and you’ll get back search results in the millions. “What if Web Users Could Sell Their Own Data?” asks a blogger for the New York Times. A story in Information Management highlights “Big Data Analytics: The Currency of the 21st Century Enterprise.” You’ll find stories heralding big data as the new currency for science, stories on the personal data marketplace, and even stories on stolen data as a currency—not to mention prominent TED talks, World Economic Forum studies, and multiple books on the subject. The gist of the argument: Personal data has an economic value that can be bought, sold, and traded.
Remarkably, one area has gone largely unexplored: the role that government will—or should—play in establishing data as a currency. Given the problems governments face in maintaining stable monetary systems, many data enthusiasts would just as soon have government stay away from this emerging instrument of exchange. Like it or not, that’s not going to happen. For one thing, the government is one of the biggest producers of data—and one of the few major producers that deliver data to the public free of charge. At last count, more than 1 million data sets from governments around the world were available on the web. Second, governments already regulate how organizations may use personal data, what privacy rights individuals have, and myriad other issues involved with the new data marketplace. If anything, regulation is likely to increase in coming years as privacy advocates and consumers step up their demands.
Lastly, revelations of the use of private data by the US intelligence community have brought the issue of co-mingling of public and private data to the forefront of public debate. While the politics are beyond the scope of this article, public consensus on the balance between privacy, security, and the flow of personal data will be critical to realize the promise the new data economy represents. Will government encourage and stimulate a vibrant exchange in this new currency, or will it just get in the way?
Government is one of the biggest producers of data—and one of the few that deliver data to the public free of charge. Governments already regulate how organizations may use personal data and myriad other issues related to data. The question, then, isn’t really whether government should get involved in the new data marketplace, but rather how it should take part.
Government can play three principal roles in the emerging data economy: producer, consumer, and facilitator. But before we examine these roles, it’s important to gain a better understanding of the emerging data marketplace.

A Quick Tour of the Data Economy
Ninety percent of the data in the world today was created in the last two years. Between now and 2020, the global volume of digital data is expected to multiply another 40 times or more. Much of that new information will consist of personal details: where people have been, what products they’ve bought, what movies they like, which candidates they support—the list is nearly endless.
Companies are working hard to cash in on the market for personal data. They range from aggregator behemoths such as Rapleaf and Acxiom, which hold information on as many as 500 million consumers globally, to start-ups such as Personal.com, which helps individuals control and make use of their own personal data. Government is also an important player in the data economy, not just as a regulator but also as a significant provider and consumer of data.

Big data and open data: what’s what and why does it matter?
Big data and the new phenomenon of open data are closely related but they’re not the same. Open data brings a perspective that can make big data more useful, more democratic, and less threatening.
While big data is defined by size, open data is defined by its use. Big data is the term used to describe very large, complex, rapidly-changing datasets. But those judgments are subjective and dependent on technology: today’s big data may not seem so big in a few years when data analysis and computing technology improves.
Open data is accessible public data that people, companies, and organizations can use to launch new ventures, analyze patterns and trends, make data-driven decisions, and solve complex problems. All definitions of open data include two basic features: the data must be publicly available for anyone to use, and it must be licensed in a way that allows for its reuse. Open data should also be relatively easy to use, although there are gradations of “openness”. And there’s general agreement that open data should be available free of charge or at minimal cost.

This Venn diagram maps the relationship between big data and open data, and how they relate to the broad concept of open government. There are a few important points to note.

  1. Big data that’s not open is not democratic: Section one of the diagram includes all kinds of big data that is kept from the public – such as national security data. This kind of big data gives an advantage to the people who control it but may disempower the rest of us. It’s this kind of big data that has become most controversial.
  2. Open data doesn’t have to be big data to matter: Modest amounts of data can have a big impact when it is made public. Data from local governments, for example, can help citizens participate in local budgeting, choose healthcare, analyze the quality of local services, or build apps that help people navigate public transport.
  3. But, when the government turns big data into open data, it’s especially powerful. Government agencies have the capacity and funds to gather very large amounts of data, and opening up those datasets can have major economic benefits. Applying open data principles to big data can help solve some of the difficult issues that big data has raised. The biggest threat to public wellbeing is the risk that private, personal data can be collected and used as big data in ways the subjects of the data – namely, all of us – may not want or approve of. Paradoxically, opening up this sensitive data, in a specific and controlled way, may actually make it more secure.
    There are two mainstream methodologies, which are Global Open Data Index (GODI) and Open Data Barometer. The Global Open Data Index evaluates an open data portal from 11 different aspects based on the Open Definition of open data, while the Open Data Barometer adds two more indices compared to the previous one.
    According to the service offered by Open Knowledge International, they run a measurement called “Global Open Data Index” which is “an annual effort to measure the state of open government data around the world”. And they evaluate the openness of an open dataset according to the following questions:
    The GODI is the annual global benchmark for publication of open government data, run by the Open Knowledge Network. The crowdsourced survey method measures the openness of government data according to the ‘definition’ of Open Data.
    By having a tool that is run by civil society, GODI creates valuable insights for government’s data publishers to understand where they have data gaps. It also shows how to make data more usable and eventually more impactful. GODI therefore provides important feedback that governments are usually lacking.
    GODI measures the openness of clearly defined data categories. Any open data that does not fall within these categories is not regarded for in their assessment. This has three reasons. Firstly, GODI assesses open government data that has proven to be useful for the public. Secondly, GODI is a comparative indicator. In the past, they have used broader categories and compared very different datasets, at the expense of comparability. Thirdly, a standardized procedure supports the researchers to reduce bias and personal judgement.
Written by

Nasirra Ahsan is a Staff Feature Writer at ICE Business Times. She is also pursuing an MSc in Economics at North South University and can be reached at nasirra10@gmail.com.