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August 5th, 2014
Will there be backlash to free open location data when more for-profit providers pounce?

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The justification behind free and open municipal data largely centers around improved transparency between government and citizens, and the means for the citizen to create apps to better serve their own and other people’s needs. While this ambition is being fulfilled, there are also those aggregating open information in larger datasets with the intent to sell. Do these two cultures clash?

This history of free vs. fee for data, and aggregation of free data for profit, are long standing. There has long been a market for this aggregated data, and not much backlash to date toward those that choose to profit from it. The issue is growing however, because more and more data is being made open, and there is an increasing ease to the aggregation process.

Anonymous Value

Much of the open data available from cities and other government entities comes with a license for non-commercial use, and it is also scrubbed of personal identities. This de-personalization is meant to free the data for interesting uses, while protecting the strongest objection – that of privacy. While it’s true that this anonymous information takes away from the privacy concern, the lack of personal information does not mean a lack of commercial value.

The big data aggregators, Google chief among those that gather location information, are also doing similar scrubbing of identity for any uses of aggregated data. Anonymized data that is aggregated from the Google Android operating system for cell phones for example is what feeds their traffic service. With enough users, you can see that even this anonymized content has a great deal of value, even to the point where Google is deploying algorithms to pick not just the most direct route, but the fastest route given real-time traffic data.

Open for Answers

The beautiful thing about the open data movement is the amazing insight being gleaned to meet societal challenges. Location information is a key ingredient to much of this problem solving, pointing out abundance vs. scarcity; connecting those in need with available services; putting together details of climate impact so that we can better take action. The push to solve problems is no longer being met by quite so many data availability barriers, and that’s definitely a good thing.

The data revolution is also being exploited for profit, but perhaps that’s not all that bad. Given the amount of access that everyone has, there will only be fleeting value for those that aggregate open information to make money. Given the escalating openness, they can only be a short way ahead of the data and insight being opened to the masses. This need to constantly innovate, newly aggregate and find value that someone is willing to pay for, paves the way for free open use and insight for those that follow.

Comparing Contentiousness

While open data is making inroads, we are still ruled by platforms that exploit our need for navigation. The early days of location-based services was rife with a ubiquitous Starbucks example, where the benefits of location were that a store could send you a coupon on your phone as you were walking by. The underlying business model often dealt with the carrier gaining some profits by brokering the transaction. Most users today would find this idea invasive without a transparent opt-in and opt-out mechanism to protect them from annoyance.

This use case is instructive with today’s open systems that let you use your location to find things around you, without an apparent cost, and mostly without feeling exploited. The idea of maps and data as a platform for the exploitation of individuals is certainly part of the history of maps. Showing you where to go, and hiding other options, is exactly the business model for every tourist town map and chamber of commerce that promotes only those that pay. Let’s not forget that Google is in the ad business, so take their way finding tips to local establishments with that motive in mind.

We each have a ton of personal data out there with location attached, and researchers have shown that identity can be determined (even if anonymized) by a small collection of our locations as none of us have the same patterns. This is a cautionary reminder as so many have been working toward more open data for wider benefits, while others have been aggregating for a lock on our loyalty and the services by which we can be exploited. At some point, there will have to be some backlash for improved protection, and let’s hope that the benefits of all this open data don’t get lost in that storm.

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