Mark Surman and others at Mozilla have been mulling over Drumbeat, an effort to promote awareness of the benefits of an open web. In his most recent blog post, Mark asks “what concrete things could Mozilla and Drumbeat do to support people creating civic and social value on the web?” …and he has posted a survey looking for your input.
The open web is a difficult concept to convey to the average browser user. As both the user interface designers and the support team at Mozilla will tell you, the average Firefox user has trouble distinguishing where the browser stops and the web begins. “Openness” is an even more abstract concept for most web users.
This leads me to believe that giving the user a good WIFM (“what’s in it for me”), argument is the best way to illustrate the advantages of the open web. The recent Internet Health Check initiative that accompanied the Firefox 3.5 release is an example of what’s in it for the average user. But, internet security is an issue fraught with technical complexities that make the eyes of even advanced browser jockeys glaze over.
I’m beginning to think that the easiest way to illustrate the advantages of the open web to the largest number of users is to take up the banner of the open data movement. It’s pretty easy to show how the availability of public data for remix can enable great things on the web, and the lack of it can stifle innovation on the web.
The Open Data Foundation, the Open Knowledge Foundation, and OpenGovData.org all have definitions of what constitutes “open” data. But, David Eaves said it best in his Three Laws of Open Government Data:
- If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
- If it isn’t available in open and machine readable format, it can’t engage
- If a legal framework doesn’t allow it to be repurposed, it doesn’t empower
Eaves calls these “Find, Play and Share”. It’s a simple concept that anyone can comprehend. If we can show people how being able to find, play with, and share more data can make it possible for them to do more things on the web, we will make more non-technical users allies in the open web movement.
And the open data movement needs all the help it can get right now. Even in free countries there are pressures coming from government institutions to lock up data collected, cataloged, and stored using public funds.
In the UK last week, the Royal Mail used the threat of legal action to shut down EarnestMarples.com a website named for the British Postmaster General who created the postal code. The site had a postal code lookup API that was freely available. Fortunately, at least one major UK newspaper, The Guardian, is championing the open data cause. I believe we should take advantage of the media focus in the UK and lend Mozilla’s voice to the chorus in favor of open data.
In the US, the mainstream media is less aware of the open data issue. As a consequence we have also been losing battles for free data. Zip code data, including both post office geolocation data and zip code boundary data is available for a fee from private sources, but does not appear to be available on data.gov or the US Postal Service web site.
Post 9/11 there have been actions such as the U.S. Department of Defense withdrawing the Defense Aviation Flight Information File (DAFIF) from public access. The DAFIF is a database of airports around the world with runway and radio frequency information of critical value to aviation safety. While there was a comment period preceding the withdrawal of the DAFIF, there was no media coverage, and too few people commented to persuade the government to leave this critical resource openly available as it had been for more than a quarter of a century. The open data movement in the U.S. was neither large enough, nor organized enough, to affect the outcome.
More awareness of the value of open data on the part of both the public and lawmakers might have prevented these examples of data being locked up by government. Mozilla can help by becoming a focal point for those interested in opening the web by opening data.
It’s encouraging to see that the Australian Government 2.0 Taskforce, runs data.australia.gov.au a government website serving government created data sets offered under Creative Commons licenses. They are currently sponsoring Mashup Australia, a contest offering more than $20,000 in prizes for data mashups using data sets hosted on the site.
The Australian experience provides a model that we could use to point out the advantages of open data to media and lawmakers worldwide. Sadly, airport information is notably missing from the Aussie data sets. Australian government pressure to remove public access to Australian airport data was believed to be one of the reasons for the DAFIF withdrawal in the U.S.
In conclusion, the open data issue is one that provides easy-to-understand examples of how a more open web is more useful to everyone. I believe it offers one of the best places to focus Drumbeat efforts to open the web. As a suggestion for a first step, how about putting up a page structured like Planet Mozilla that combines feeds from open data organizations and bloggers around the world?