Why Libraries Should Maintain the Open Data of Their Communities

Today I’m preparing for my participation in a seminar on Open Cities that will be held Monday in Toronto as part of the Monday Night Seminar series by The McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology.

As part of my preparation, I thought I would take and publish an edited version of a draft of a paper that I wrote about Why Libraries Should Maintain the Open Data of Their Communities that I wrote in 2014 but never ended up publishing.

The text that follows is loooong. For a shorter take, you can opt to check out my slides on the same topic from a presentation I gave at the Ontario Library Association Superconference in January of this year.


Before we can have Linked Open Data, we need Open Data, and that process of education and data publishing with open licenses has been slow going (Voss 2012).

It is curious that for all the professional and scholarly conversations within librarianship about Linked Open Data there is scant attention being paid to the much simpler technology of Open Data. What literature on Open Data that is found is largely situated within the larger conversation on the preservation and management of experimental data that are now required of researchers to deposit due to changes in national-level funding mandates. Not to take away from the work being applied to both Linked Open Data and Research Data Management as these are both important developments in the work of libraries, this text will put forward that libraries are not taking advantage of an opportunity to collect and manage Open Data more widely from and for their communities. By ignoring Open Data libraries are missing an opportunity to become a platform by which new works by and about their community can be built. Indeed, there are those outside of the profession who have expressed that libraries would do well to address this need.

The Context: Open Data in Canada

It is necessary to define what is meant by the term Open Data before continuing. In this text I am going to use a stricter definition of Open Data than what is generally used in the research data management community. The Canadian’s federal research granting agencies in their consultation report “The Capitalizing on Big Data: Toward a Policy Framework for Advancing Digital Scholarship in Canada” (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council et al. 2014) use the same definition of Open Data as The Royal Society in its “Science as an Open Enterprise” report:

“Open data is data that meets the criteria of intelligent openness. Data must be accessible, usable, assessable and intelligible”(Royal Society (Great Britain) 2012).

But for the purposes that I will be making a case for in this text, it is necessary to extend the definition of Open Data to more than merely making one’s data available online which has be construed as open-washing (Villum 2014). When using the term Open Data I will be using its definition as expressed by the Open Knowledge Foundation:

“Open means anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness)”(Open Knowledge Foundation 2014).

It is important to understand the consequences of using the definition of Open Data as set by the OKFN. A dataset that is made available online using the licence CC-BY-NC, or Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial, for example, would not be considered Open Data by the OKFN since it restricts the domain of data use to only non-commercial endeavors.

On the other hand, this text will accept any data – even unstructured data in a proprietary format – that is made available freely online as long as the license has been designated as Open. This is consistent with the definition of Open Data as considered by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web and the initiator of Linked Data. Berners-Lee holds that Open Data is a quality that can be assigned of one of five possible stars for openness (Berners-Lee 2006).

5 stars of open data

Data that is available online that has been granted an open license has a quality level of one star. Openly licensed data available in a structured form such as a table is worth two stars and data that is structured using a non-proprietary format such as within a comma delimited file earns three stars. Four star open data is open licensed data that has been assigned a URI, or uniform resource identifier, so that the data can be linked to with less likelihood of breaking. And according to Berners-Lee, data with semantic metadata or Open Linked Data would be ideal and thus earns five stars. In the course of this text it will be discussed why the work involved of adding additional metadata, structure, and programmatic access to Open Data might be a new service that librarians might want to consider providing to their communities as part of our portfolio of services.

I will also be writing about the Canadian context of Open Data. This context is significant because government produced data in Canada falls under Crown Copyright which is an arrangement that allows for perpetual copyright held by the Crown. This arrangement is unlike that of the United States where government work

“prepared by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of that person’s official duties… is not subject to copyright” and is, as such, free to copy by citizens of the United States (U.S. General Services Administration 2014).

Reproduction and other uses of Canadian government produced information, by default, requires permission and the generally involves the payment of licensing fees that have been set for the purposes of cost-recovery. That was the case until 2010, when the federal government gave notice that it was establishing a license that gave permission for non-commercial uses without the need for permission (Geist 2013). But in 2013, this notice was removed from the Public Works and Government Services site and the announcement was made that,

“as of November 18, 2013 Publishing and Depository Services no longer administers Crown Copyright and Licensing on behalf of Government of Canada departments and agencies. Should you be seeking copyright clearance for Government of Canada information, please contact the department or agency that created the information” (P. W. and G. S. C. Government of Canada 2007).

It is still unclear whether there is a consistent approach across the departments of the federal government in regards to whether prior permission is necessary for non-commercial uses of online data of the federal government.

Canadian Libraries Opening Data

Due to its cost-recovery mandate, access and use of many of the datasets produced by Canadian federal department of Statistics Canada require a licensing fee. These fees that are considered minimal by Statistics Canada have not only inhibited student use of its research data but it is thought to have limited the entire filed of quantitative social science research in Canada (Boyko and Watkins 2014). To alleviate this condition, Statistics Canada in 1996 established the Data Liberation Initiative (DLI) with Canadian post-secondary institutions to improve data access for students, staff and faculty.

“Over the years the focus of the DLI Program has evolved from purchasing access to major Canadian datasets collected by Statistics Canada to providing training services and the continuous support required for the proper understanding and usage of an ever expanding research data collection” (S. C. Government of Canada 1996).

It has been said that the fear of lost revenue inhibited efforts in the 1990s to make government-produced data from Statistics Canada more readily available to Canadian academic researchers through the Data Liberation Initiative (Boyko and Watkins 2014) despite the fact that revenue recovered from such efforts have been suggested to been limited (McMahon 2014). In order to prevent “leakage” of data from the academic sphere to the public/commercial sphere through the DLI, Statistics Canada developed and requires a license agreement to be signed by the institution’s University Librarian and designated DLI contact that makes explicit that that the data distributed by the institution are for

“exclusive purposes of teaching, academic research and publishing, and/or planning of educational services within my educational institution, and may not be used for any other purposes without the explicit prior written approval of Statistics Canada” (Boyko and Watkins 2014).

As Boyko and Watkins notes,

“This license has been remarkably effective. The penalty for a breach of the license would be the loss of data access to the offending institution. As a result DLI contacts are extremely diligent in applying the conditions and have a number of tools at their disposal to help in this regard.”

While libraries have been responsible for upholding obligations of signed license agreements for digital products for decades now, I think it’s important to take a moment to reflect on this behaviour that has been normalized. If libraries during the age of only print had decided to restrict the use of its collections to non-commercial sphere and would regularly interrogate our users of their intentions of how they planned to make use of the information that they found in the library before they were able to access those works, the practice would be dismissed immediately out of a respect for personal privacy.  The fact that this practice has been established with no known complaint is likely for several reasons. For one, the transaction of data from Statistics Canada to the user (through the proxy of the academic library) is framed as an exchange in which the promise of non-commercialization of the data and no re-distribution of the set is given in return for data without a financial cost, as opposed to an imposed restriction on one’s rights on one’s own data.

While the Data Liberation Initiative has had success in making government data more readily available for the academic researchers of Canada, it does not help bring government data to the wider public. In response, local governments, non-profit organizations and public libraries such as the Calgary Public Library, Toronto Public Library, and Regina Public Library have independently joined the Community Data Program (CDP) as established by the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), to collectively acquire Statistics Canada data. It should be noted that this data is not intended to be shared with the public; rather the data is used for internal planning and decision making (Canadian Council on Social Development 2014).

At one time libraries did belong to a program that made Canadian government information freely available to the Canadian public called the Federal Depository Services Program.

“The original mandate of the DSP was to provide a central and comprehensive distribution source from which published Government of Canada (GC) information would be sent to academic, college, legislative and public libraries, as well as to federal parliamentarians and departmental libraries” (Government of Canada Publications 2014).

The program began in 1927 and ended in 1994 when the program developed into the “E-Collection” in 1995. The distribution of print publications to libraries eventually ceased as access to their PDF equivalents were made available online. While the DSP E-Collection Program is one that distributes publications and not datasets, I believe that the program is worth mentioning in this context because it was one reason given why my own place of employment (and presumably other Canadian academic libraries) have always maintain a bank of computers that are freely available to the public. Since our library was designated a Full Depository Library in the DSP program it was held that our library had an obligation to provide unfettered and free public access to our the DSP collection beyond our campus to the wider community. I would consider this a historical precedent to possible hosting of government open data in the future.

One could argue that the most significant program to make Canadian government data readily available to all of its citizens without a direct cost now comes from the government itself. It is difficult to set a precise date when it and other governments began the shift towards Open Data. It has been said that “The Open Data Movement” began in the United States in December of 2007 (Chignard 2013) when thirty prominent writers, scholars, business leaders and activists came together to form an Open Government Working Group (Malamud 2007). In May of 2009, the City of Vancouver “endorsed the principles of making its data open and accessible to everyone where possible, adopting open standards for that data and considering open source software when replacing existing applications”(CBC News 2009). By June of 2013, Canada signed on to the Open Data Charter at the G8 Summit held in Lough Erne Summit in Northern Ireland and in doing so, committed itself to the following principles:

  1. Open Data by Default – foster expectations that government data be published openly;
  2. Quantity and Quality – release quality, timely and well described Open Data;
  3. Usable by All – release as much data in as many open formats as possible;
  4. Releasing Data for Improved Governance – share expertise and be transparent about data collection, standards and publishing processes; and
  5. Releasing Data for Innovation – consult with users and empower future generations of innovators (data.gc.ca 2014).

As of October, 2014, five of our of nation’s provincial governments host an open data portal as do over fifty municipalities (Lauriault 2014).

In the next section of this text, it will be argued that there is a growing expectation that the library develops into a platform for the information needs of its community and that hosting Open Data may be one such development towards this vision.

The Library As Platform

There have been a number of prominent individuals outside of the librarian profession who have advocated that libraries must go beyond merely providing traditional collections if they are to remain a relevant and vibrant institution in the future. In May of 2011 writer Seth Godwin declared that “The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books” and instead suggested a new vision of the library: “there are one thousand things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value” (Godin 2011). In October of 2013, MG Siegler, who is a general partner at Google Ventures, declared “The End of the Library” in a post on TechCrunch stating, “The internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books” (Siegler 2013).

Librarians have generally not been receptive to these interjections. One of the strongest rebuttals to the MG Siegler article addresses the comfortable privilege of Siegler and other writers in the “End of the Library trope” (Berg 2013). While these writers might not need libraries personally, Berg argues, it is a mistake for them to insist that this means that everyone else in the community is in the same situation and to ignore the less fortunate. Indeed, there is still a considerably large population who need and use libraries regularly for access to reading materials or to access digital sources of information (Zickuhr, Purcell, and Rainie 2014).

While acknowledging this particular weakness and their other shortcomings I would like to suggest that within many of these “Death of the Library” pieces is also evidence that there is a segment of our population who are no longer not well served by primarily collection-based libraries of items that can be readily acquired through commercial channels. Before I extend this argument, I would like to locate this observation in the context of the Collections Grid model developed by Lorcan Dempsey and Eric Childress that takes in account the changes in library collection development that have come about in an increased networked environment (Dempsey, Malpas, and Lavoie 2014).

Unlike the writers of many of the ‘Death of the library’ pieces, I am not suggesting that hosting and managing Open Data should or will replace traditional collection building. Instead my suggestion is that libraries consider adding this responsibility as part of our collection development work. The benefit of situating Open Data work within the Collections Grid model is that it opens a conversation about where the library is currently investing its collections resources and allows us to discuss the possibility of shifting some of our resources in response. The model

 organizes resources according to two values: uniqueness and stewardship/scarcity. Resources that are unique, or rare, tend to be in one collection only. Resources that are not unique or rare tend to be in many collections. At the nonunique end of this spectrum are commodity materials, which are widely published or available through many channels. Resources that are highly stewarded are things that attract library attention, have resources and time spent on them, have systems infrastructure devoted to them, and so on. Stewardship and scarcity tend to go together: we have developed stewardship models for materials that are relatively scarce. This gives us four quadrants.


In an academic context, support for Open Data from and about the library and of its parent institution would likely be positioned in this model’s bottom right quadrant, indicating high uniqueness and low stewardship. This quadrant has been given a heading of Research & Learning Materials as this section includes “Institutional records, ePrints/tech reports, Learning objects, Courseware, E-portfolios, and Research” data. Writing about this type of collections work in an academic context, Dempsey et al. states, “This quadrant is increasingly important. We can identify various strands of activity, especially since there is increasing interest in curating and disclosing additional materials from the process of scholarly inquiry, as universities become more aware of the range of digital assets they produce and the management requirements they raise, and as making such assets more discoverable is seen as contributing to university reputation.”

One of the most succinct expressions of this growing expectation that a library should be more than traditionally collection-based comes from within librarianship. R. David Lankes, professor and Dean’s Scholar for the New Librarianship at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies wrote in 2013, “Bad Libraries build collections. Good libraries build services (of which a collection is only one). Great libraries build Communities” (Lankes 2014). This statement fits comfortably within Lankes’ larger Mission for Librarians which framed his Atlas of New Librarianship: “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” (Lankes 2011).

There is evidence that those from outside of librarianship are starting to understand the potential of libraries in this particular context. During the month of September 2014 the Knight Foundation began a Knight News Challenge as a means to distribute a share of $2.5 million in funding. The challenge issued was “How might we leverage libraries as a platform to build more knowledgeable communities?” (Bracken 2014). Of the 680 public entries that were submitted, 13 of the Knight Foundation Challenge entries mentioned Open Data explicitly. One such the entry was entitled “From open data to open knowledge: Using libraries to turn civic data into a valuable resource for citizens, researchers, and City Hall alike.” It, like many of these challenge responses, identify a need for librarians to improve the context of existing open data and “to help ensure that our data becomes part of the valuable collection of information they make available to their users” (Franklin-Hodge 2014).

Why Open Data

Some of the key motivations for open data initiatives are to promote transparency of decision-making, create accountability for elected and appointed officials, and spur greater citizen engagement. In addition, however, it is increasingly clear that open data can also enable the creation of economic value beyond the walls of the governments and institutions that share their data. This data can not only be used to help increase the productivity of existing companies and institutions, it also can spur the creation of entrepreneurial businesses and improve the welfare of individual consumers and citizens (Chui, Farrell, and Van Kuiken 2013).

As stated previously in the discussion of the Data Liberation Initiative of Statistics Canada, the argument that Canadian government data is best served on a cost-recovery basis has been challenged.

The little research that has been done into this subject has suggested that charging for government data almost never yields much money, and often actually serves as a loss creating mechanism. Indeed a 2001 KPMG study of Canadian geospatial data found government almost never made money from data sales if purchases by other levels of government were not included (Eaves 2013).

Proponents of Open Data argue that Open Data will release more social and economic value than cost recovery and as such, are more in line with what we understand a government should do for its citizens. Some advocates of Open Data state this conviction even more strongly:

The open data movement has propagated a shifting notion of who the users of data are. In the long history of data, citizens were always considered to be end-users who provided their data to the collector and then interfaced with the end-products of data-driven government innovations. In this new vision, government concedes that citizens can best define and resolve the problems that plague their own communities—implying that communities should take the data provided and use it to address their needs (Deahl 2014).

Alex Carruthers of the Edmonton Public Library has stated that the benefits of Open Data as given generally to governments, can also be extended to libraries:

Were a library to collect and analyze its internal data and integrate it with publicly available data, it could improve the efficiency of workflows and provide evidence-based support for program development. Sharing library data such as in-branch technology, usage, anonymized circulation statistics, and catalogue metadata improves the organization’s transparency and can provide citizens with insight into the value of the library (Carruthers 2014).

Librarians could have additional reasons why libraries should collect and might make use of Open Data to facilitate knowledge creation in their communities and this will be explored in the next section of this text.

Libraries should improve Data Literacy as a means to distribute the benefits of Open Data more equitably

At the 2014 Access Conference, there were two lightning talks that shared the experiences and lessons learned from two respective library-hosted open data hackathons, with one being from the University of Ottawa and the other hosted at the Edmonton Public Library. In her talk “#HackUOBiblio – libraries, hacking, and open data”, Catherine McGoveran told the audience that the focus of their hackathon was Open Data,

“We wanted people to understand what it is and what they could do with it all within the broader context of fostering data literacy in our community”(#HackUOBiblio – Libraries, Hacking, and Open Data 2014).

Elsewhere, she and the organizers of HackUOBiblio have stated that such hackathons are useful in as a means to teach data literacy skills (Weatherall 2014).

In their presentation “Hacking the city: Libraries and the open data movement”, Alex Carruthers of the Edmonton Public Library and Lydia Zvyagintseva, MLIS/MA Candidate of the University of Alberta and founder of HackYEG, continued the theme of the Open Data, libraries and the need for greater data literacy (Hacking the City: Libraries and the Open Data Movement 2014).

Despite the very compelling rhetoric of government transparency and civic engagement, studies suggest that in practice open data access appears to benefit government and the entrepreneurial class more than the public at large who find data difficult to interpret. The general public relies on applications developed by the entrepreneurial class to make sense of data. We believe libraries are well positioned to play a strategic role in developing skills required for citizens to navigate the expanding data landscape.

Further on in their talk, Carruthers and Zvyagintse cite the work of Prado and Marzel, “Determining Data Information Literacy Needs: A Study of Students and Research Faculty” in their conclusion that the increasing importance of data in our civic lives “require public, school and academic libraries to contribute to both data and information literacy, as part of their larger mission to further knowledge and innovation in their respective fields of action” (Calzada and Marzal 2013).

In a blog post entitled, “Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data”, David Eaves made a similar response to the problem of a public that may lack the data literacy skills to make use of Open Data:

“We didn’t build libraries for a literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have public policy literate citizens, we build them so that citizens may become literate in public policy” (Eaves 2014).

Eaves goes on to compare libraries and Open Data catalogues and reminds his readers that the value of libraries did not come from books alone but its additional supportive efforts to support literacy:

When we think of libraries, we often just think of a building with books.  But 19th century [libraries] mattered not only because they had books, but because they offered literacy programs, books clubs, and other resources to help citizens become literate and thus, more engaged and productive. Open data catalogs need to learn the same lesson. While they won’t require the same centralized and costly approach as the 19th century, governments that help foster communities around open data, that encourage their school system to use it as a basis for teaching, and then support their citizens’ efforts to write and suggest their own public policy ideas will, I suspect, benefit from happier and more engaged citizens, along with better services and stronger economies.

Eaves ends his post with this challenge: “So what is your government/university/community doing to create its citizen army of open data analysts?” And in response several readers commented that libraries again are well positioned to help create citizens that are data literate.

Open Data builds towards an expectation of engagement

At the 2014 Access Conference, Carruthers and Zvyagintseva framed their Open Data hackathon work in the larger context of participatory learning:

Our main argument then is that hosting and supporting hackathons aligns with larger missions of libraries which is to foster literacies and build communities and specifically, by bringing together people and information, hackathons support digital literacy, they foster civic engagement and leverage community knowledge.  And when we talk about civic engagement, building communities, we are really talking about participatory culture which is a value that the open data movement and libraries share.

Hosting hackathons may prove daunting for many libraries because, as Carruthers and Zvyagintseva put succinctly, “Libraries need participants as much as participants need libraries to support this type of event.” It is probably too soon to make such claims, but I would like to suggest that, slowly, libraries are starting to involve public participation in the building and the understanding of their collections. The experiences of the New York Public Library Lab’s “Map Warper” project, which invites users to help align digitized paper maps so they can match modern maps, and their “What’s On The Menu” Project, which invites the public to help transcribe one of the 45,000 menus in their digitized collection, have led to a such a re-thinking of their work:

Building on the Map Warper’s success, WOTM has undoubtedly impacted the internal conversation at NYPL around digital strategy, user engagement and collections policy. It has helped shift the attention, at least in part, away from static online exhibitions, which notoriously struggle to retain users’ attention, toward participation-oriented Web sites with longer life cycles, involving the public in the grand (if painstaking) work of building the digital library. It has also jumpstarted policy discussions around user-contributed content and its relation to Library-authored metadata (Vershbow 2013).

If the process of crowdsourcing digitized collections can be described as public participation in public memory (Vershbow 2013), perhaps Open Data hackathons and library support for Open Data can be framed as participation in the creation of public understanding.

Open Data as a strategy against enclosure

Many Henk in Ecology, Economy Equity dedicates a chapter to the threat of enclosure to libraries. “Enclosure is the process of taking a previously shared resource, a grazing field, a water source, or even information, and erecting barriers to use“ (Henk 2014). Henk describes the threat of enclosure by commercial publishers in scholarly publishing:

The actualization of the digital library has taken on a particular form, one that presents considerable danger to libraries and our readers. We have allowed commercial interests to claim “ownership” of the scholarly record through digitization and publishing. In doing so we have allowed an unhealthy system to grow. This system leads to libraries that have been hollowed out, reduced to access points with librarians as skilled product trainers, while the publishers themselves profit handsomely from the labour of the very scholars we support and from the citizens whose taxes support us all.

Open Data, by its very definition of being open, is resistant to enclosure while allowing for commercial use. This is because while a license is open, copies of the data are allowed to be made which can remain under open license even if the original dataset is updated with more restrictive licensing (Munro 2014). While many municipal governments and federal and provincial government departments make Open Data available, there is no promise or obligation to maintain or perpetually host those datasets, unless those governments are otherwise directed by an internal policy. This suggests that libraries may have a role in the collection and preservation of Open Data in their community, if just to be a source of dataset redundancy in case the original datasets are removed without sufficient notice.


At the time of this text’s composition (2014) there is only small group of public libraries, including the Vancouver Public Library and Edmonton Public Library, that host Open Data, but at this time, the data that these libraries make available are from their own organization only. The only exception that it is known to the author is the Open Chattanooga project, “a collaborative between the City of Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Public Library and the Open Chattanooga Brigade” (Open Chattanooga 2014).

But librarians, like those previously mentioned in Edmonton, Alberta and Ottawa, Ontario and others such as the Cleveland (Ohio) Public Library, have been engaged with their community’s civic hacking communities and have been helping facilitate their use of open data (Greenwalt 2014). It is hoped that the number of librarians and libraries engage in open data continue to grow so that the benefits of such collection work – increased institutional transparency, stronger community engagement, improved data literacy, and the prevention against public commons enclosure – can be open to all.


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