Open Data is necessary but not sufficient

Dictated and Scraped into Arcturus

John Wilbanks is Director of Science Commons and a co-author of the Panton Principles. He has responded to my concerns about access to climate change data, with the observation that Open data is not the major problem or solution. I’ll comment at the bottom. I agree with what he says, but I will argue why there is a role for Open Knowledge in this issue.

We’ve spent a lot of time on climate change and open science at Creative Commons. I have a personal interest, as my father is a climate change researcher and was an author on the most recent IPCC report. He and I co-wrote a paper on open innovation in sustainable development earlier this year which was OA, and the references for that paper are a good start for the non-data side of the problem. It’s at


In most cases in climate change science, impacts, and adaptive responses, the hurdles for open science are not intellectual property rights but scientific practices related to confidentiality and protecting one’s own data and models – a different challenge. The current evaluation of iPCC being done by the Interacademy Council at the request of the UN is beginning to take a look at how such conventional scientific practices can become a threat to the perceived integrity of science. IP is a footnote in the debate, unlike in OA or in free software or in free culture. Our successes in these spaces have sadly conditioned us to look at “free” legal tools as our hammers, and see the world as a bunch of nails. It’s a great irony actually. 

In the case of climate change mitigation, of course, the open science issues are similar to those in other areas of traditional manufactured technology – accentuated by the fact that the main drivers of increases in global GHG emissions are now in the larger developing countries, while the industrialized countries still control a lot of the intellectual property for addressing that problem….


In many ways the “open” debate about data fails to capture the reality of these issues. Making data open, even fully compliant with the Science Commons protocol, is actually far from enough. I hope that we can make these debates nuanced enough that we don’t push “open” as the end game, because I can comply with the protocol, or with Panton, and still have my data be worthless from a scientific perspective. An extreme example would be that I publish PDFs of my data under PDDL, and claim the mantle of “open”. If we as a community push “open” as the goal, and not “useful” as the goal, then we enable that outcome. 


Open climate science, at least as it regards data, is almost never an intellectual property problem. It’s a culture problem, it’s a technology problem (formats, ontologies, standards), and it’s a language problem. It’s a political problem, it’s an incentive problem. Getting rid of the IP is no more than table stakes. And if we don’t deal with the inventions – the technologies that both create climate problems and that promise to mitigate them in adaptation – then we won’t be changing the world the way we want. That’s a big part of why our science work has shifted to focusing significantly on patent licensing and materials transfer…

I completely agree that this is a culture problem. It was the culture of priesthood that hit me – unexpectedly and repeatedly – at the RI meeting. And I do not argue that IP issues are the primary problem. But I wouldn’t call Open Data simply an IP problem. Lack of Open Data is symptomatic of a deeper malaise. And open Data is catalytic – if people are accustomed to making their data Open they are more likely to make their processes Open. A group that produces Open Data has to think about openness every time they release a data set, every time they publish a paper.

Perhaps an analogy would be laboratory practice. Running a safe and clean laboratory does not in itself make a good scientist. But it emphasizes certain fundamental principles and attitudes such as consideration for co-workers, having procedures in place, adopting discipline.

I’d describe Open Data as a necessary but nowhere near sufficient condition. But it’s also a visible and valuable touchstone. I’ll address this in the next post.


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