What is Open Data?

Open data is a relatively new term, and a common buzzword. People often consider open data in terms of government transparency, but not all transparent government data is technically “open”—and open data does not need to come from the government. Definitions of open data vary among experts, but most identify three main characteristics: 

Open data is free to the public,
easily accessible,
and usable as an input for programs and other functions.

Open data is free.

Open data doesn’t require any form of payment. It can be used in almost any way, including in new products. Open data products shouldn’t be subject to royalties.

Popular sources for open data are government data portals, nonprofit foundations, and university research archives. Some businesses release their data to the public. A popular repository for such open data is Kaggle, a learning community where users access company-supplied open data to help solve problems.

Open data is accessible.

Open data is published online, and should be easy to find with a search engine. These two points are essential. If data doesn’t meet these criteria, they might as well be invisible.

That said, “accessibility” may vary depending on a user’s technical capabilities. Raw data may be published openly and searchable, but many raw open data files comprise many individual data points. Nontechnical users may not know what raw data is, or have the computing capability to open the files. Some open data advocates press for data to be presented in a more user-friendly format, like the Census Bureau’s tables.

Open data is usable.

Open data can be repurposed. In this respect, open data goes beyond transparency requirements for government documents, which are often read-only. When data remains in its raw form, those familiar with statistics tend to be the only users. Benefits from publishing data in a range of formats include increased transparency, the ability to crowdsource issues, and a greater range of goods and services.

Open data helps create complex technology, such as IBM’s Watson. Many commercial apps use open data too—for example, Waze software relies on open transit data. And open data can also be used to create something as simple as an online news article.

LiveStories works extensively with open data. We provide open data portals for all levels of government, from the Department of Defense to local health departments. Learn more about open data or request a demo here.


This blog post definition is based on definitions of open data from the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) and the Sunlight Foundation.

Cover photo by Alex Holyoake.