Oct. 27, 2016
In the Digital Age, governance, technology, education, science, platforms, and more are being pushed to become more “open.” Open movements are working to remove barriers that prevent the public from fully accessing these institutions, systems, and fields. Open education, for example, aims to broaden access and increase opportunities for learning. In the United States, open government strives to improve transparency, increase collaboration, and facilitate public participation in our democracy. Open science accelerates the pace of inquiry and discovery in academic research.
Underlying each of these movements is one critical need: open use of information. For any of these fronts or fields to be open, the public must be able to fully engage with the information fueling each of these endeavors. Much of this information is funded by the federal government, which collects, produces, and distributes more information than any other organization, public or private, in the United States. Unfortunately, restricted access to this information—information produced with public funds—is all too common.
Why? In part, this is because institutions have failed to recognize that openness is about more than simply being able to view or see information online. Open use requires that information is not only free, but also that it is available for the public to download, copy, keep, analyze, or reuse for any purpose. These permissions allow users to modify information, translating it into another language, for example, or making it available in a different format. The reuse of information is critical in education, where materials are constantly modified to meet the needs of different learners. In science, this openness allows for greater replication of research to confirm or disprove findings of new research.
This is not to say that we are not more open today than we were even a decade ago; we are. Efforts to make valuable government information more open have accelerated under the Obama administration. In 2009, the administration made a modest request that each federal agency identify three high value data sets to make openly available to the public; now data.gov is the home for government data, housing nearly 200,000 datasets on education, health, energy, governance, and more. Today, every agency that funds more than $100 million in research and development grants has put in place a plan to make that information more accessible. And agencies like the Departments of Labor, Education, and State, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation have piloted the use of Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licenses by some grantees, allowing the public to openly use resources produced with each agency’s limited competitive grant funds.
But movement toward open use policies has come in fits and starts, and faulty federal policies that treat different kinds of information differently have impeded progress. Many policies continue to delay the publication of information; grant use of information to a select few; or even, and most antithetically to an open movement, limit access to those who can pay. In The Case for Open Use Policies: Realizing the Full Value of Publicly Funded Information, a new report from New America’s Education Policy program, I argue that these ambiguities in public rights to different kinds of information must be addressed. The report details policy recommendations that would move the federal government toward stronger open use policies.
Making information open, however, is only the first step. Those responsible for making information more open should consider whether it is actually accessible to all. For example, has it been made available for people with varying levels of background knowledge on the subject, or for those who speak different languages? They should also look to the formats in which the information is made available, including whether that information is accessible to people with disabilities. For information to be fully usable—to be truly open—the format of information also matters. Information should be machine-readable, or in a format easily processed by a computer.
This work isn’t free from costs. A wholesale change in how the federal government manages its information, from the digitization of information to its ongoing maintenance and distribution, is an expensive endeavor. But governance in the Digital Age necessitates many of these investments, as the federal bureaucracy continues to upgrade its technological infrastructure and update how it does its work in the twenty-first century. The adoption of clear open use policies across the federal government would be more cost-effective than doing this work piecemeal.
The ideals put forward in open movements, from open education’s goal of universal learning to open government’s goal of improving the functioning of our democracy, require the free and open exchange of information and ideas. “Ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition.” Those may be grand words, but open use policies can help make this free exchange of information and ideas a reality.