Between Open License and Open Use

November 8, 2007

I’ve been in a reflective mood about CrystalEye over the last few days. In repository-land where I spend part of my time, OAI-PMH is regarded as a really simple way of getting data from repositories, and approaches like Atom are often regarded as insufficiently featured. So I’ll admit I was a bit surprised about the negative reaction provoked by the idea of CrystalEye only providing incremental data feeds.

The “give me a big bundle of your raw data” request was one I’d heard before, from Rufus Pollock at OKFN, when I was working on the DSpace@Cambridge project, a topic he returned to yesterday, arguing that data projects should put making raw data available as a higher priority than developing “Shiny Front Ends” (SFE).

I agree on the whole. In a previous life working on public sector information systems I often had extremely frustrating conversations with data providers who didn’t see anything wrong in placing access restrictions on data they claimed was publicly available (usually the restriction was that any other gov / NGO could see the data but the public they served couldn’t).

When it comes to the issue with CrystalEye we’re not talking about access restriction, we’re talking about the form the data is made available, and the effort needed to obtain it. This is a familiar motif: –

  • The government has data that’s available if you ask in person, but that’s more effort than we’d like to expend, we’d like it to be downloadable
  • The publishers make (some) publications available as PDF, but analyzing the science requires manual effort, we’d like them to publish the science in a form that’s easier to process and analyze
  • The publishers make (some) data available from their websites, but it’s not easy to crawl the websites to get hold of it – it would be great if they gave us feeds of their latest data
  • CrystalEye makes CML data available, but potential users would prefer us to bundle it up onto DVDs and mail it to them.

Hold on, bit of a role reversal at the end there! Boot’s on the other foot. We have a reasonable reply; we’re a publicly funded research group who happen to believe in Open Data, not a publicly funded data provider. We have to prioritise our resources accordingly, but I still think the principle of providing open access to the raw data applies.

You’ll have to excuse a non-chemist stretching a metaphor: There’s an activation energy between licensing data as open, and making it easy to access and use. CrystalEye has made me wonder how much of this energy has to come from the provider, and how much from the consumer.

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