The Zen of Open Data

Once upon a time, on a blog that has since vanished from the web (but remains available through the good graces of the Internet Archive), I wrote a short poem called The Zen of Open Data. Occasionally people ask me what happened to these words, so I am reproducing them here for posterity.

The Zen of Open Data, by Chris McDowall

Open is better than closed.
Transparent is better than opaque.
Simple is better than complex.
Accessible is better than inaccessible.
Sharing is better than hoarding.
Linked is more useful than isolated.
Fine grained is preferable to aggregated.
(Although there are legitimate privacy and security limitations.)
Optimise for machine readability — they can translate for humans.
Barriers prevent worthwhile things from happening.
'Flawed, but out there' is a million times better than 'perfect, but unattainable'.
Opening data up to thousands of eyes makes the data better.
Iterate in response to demand.
There is no one true feed for all eternity — people need to maintain this stuff.


Many people inadvertently contributed to this text. One particularly strong influence was a panel discussion between Nat TorkingtonAdrian HolovatyToby Segaran and Fiona Romeo at Webstock, 2009. Licensed under CC-BY.

Regarding the origins of the poem, here is the introduction from the original post:

“This morning I was writing code in a programming language called Python. I hit a sticky problem and turned to an arcane feature of the language known as the “The Zen of Python” for guidance. There I read the words, “In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess,” and I was enlightened.”

“Open data has been on my mind lately. Open data is a philosophy and practice advocating that data should be freely available to everyone, without restrictions. Following the experience I related above, I began to wonder what “The Zen of Open Data” might look like. I wrote something over morning tea that tries to boil down all the stuff I have heard and read on the topic over the past two years and posted it to the New Zealand Open Government Ninjas forum.”

One Response to “The Zen of Open Data”

  1. David says:

    Two other pieces of python-lore, Chris. Try

    from __future__ import braces

    and, of course,

    Anyhoo… these two lines

    (Although there are legitimate privacy and security limitations.)
    Optimise for machine readability — they can translate for humans.

    are the only ones I would want to refine. The refinement for the first would likely not scan very well – but I think leaving the definition of those legitimate concerns so open-ended is a problem.

    And I question whether optimising for machine readability is the right call. Who’s in charge here?! See also: Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget”, from which: “The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view, is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.” No sense in making that violation any easier than needs to be!

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