We would have great apps, if most Open data were not so boring

12.02.2013 | Christian Kreutz
Picture above: The data set "Enterprises using the Internet for interaction with public authorities" from the EU Data portal

If I only had some good data, I would do some great apps...

It’s like that basic rule in nutrition: Food that is not eaten has no nutritional value. Data which is not understood has no value. Hans Rosling

When it comes to open data nowadays, one first tends to look at a range of data sets and then think about what could be done with them, though it should be the other way around. There is a real demand for data services, and it is 'only' about combining the right data sources together. Sadly, this demanded, good and valuable information is rarely available as open data. It could be that my criticism is due to the lack of my creativity to squeeze the best out of even lame data.

Open data portals

There has been an incredible effort done to make information available through open data portals for example, by cities or national governments and I applaud the effort. But here again I often stumble over the same problem. The data sets offered are so boring and look often like Alibi cases. I can so imagine a meeting of beaurocrats; "colleagues, as the last point of the agenda we need to talk about that open data portal." Sighes in the room. "Could you come up with some data sets?" Pause. "Well we give the latest count of animals in our zoo. We can offer the opening hours of our 10 museums. And we will publish the voting results from 1990 to 2006."

What is clear is that such data will not motivate a single developer. It is 100% boring and far away from being valuable and interesting. Check out the new European data portal from the European Commission, a great attempt no doubt and only a few months on the go. These are some example names of data sets:

The above image shows one such data set, which is probably only readable to an insider. In my research these are often the case on other portals as well. One can rarely find appealing and valuable data.

The case of geo data

Or take the case of geo data. It is the basis of many apps, but finding for example, administrative borders for cities, districts or post codes is almost impossible for many countries. But this is exactly what needs to become a very detailed data service to best serve a user. A lot has been done to offer more geo data openly, but unfortunately governments rarely offer such essential, mostly tax-payed information, for re-use.

In Germany, for example, the statistic office offers a ridicolous small amount of "geocoded" data. In 2011 they offered data sets of marriages, child care, unemployment rate, car accidents, election results. The problem not only is that it is very little, but also lacks "ground data" such as a list of kindergardens or playgrounds across Germany.

I imagine we will enter a complete different phase when interesting and valuable open data is offered. That is also the incentive we need to get many more developers involved. Crossed fingers governments will have no choice but to publish through external pressure. Otherwise it is just not going to happen.