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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.

I share it below for anyone who might be interested.

Coromandel
Image by Sienna.

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 Torkington, Adrian Holovaty, Toby Segaran and Fiona Romeo at Webstock’09.