Enterprise Information Management in the 21st Century

EIM in the age of Semantcs, Big Data, and Social Media

Open Data as Social Change?

One of the effects of our new media culture – the 24-hour news cycle, instant updates via Twitter and Facebook, etc – is that language tends to become less precise in the rush to make “the update.” As a Data Quality specialist, the makes my heart sad, but that is a topic for another day. Today, I want to talk about a particular phenomenon in current American politics and relate it to how Open Data may affect it.

This thought was sparked by reading a post at the Lost Boy blog called¬†Data is Potential.¬†In this post, one of the ideas discussed is that Open Data is diametrically opposed to the closed, proprietary world we currently live in. That has a lot of resonance in the Open Data world – many people that I talk to regarding Open Data have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of sharing data of any sort. This is because the concept of sharing data is alien to how they were trained from childhood – what’s yours is yours, and should be vigorously protected. Incidentally, this is also why many people can’t understand how Open Source software companies can survive…

How does this relate to current American politics? Well, one of the persistent criticisms of President Barack Obama is that he is “anti-capitalist” and a “socialist.” I take no particular position on this argument mainly because I think it’s silly, and I also think that the words used are masks for other fears. If you take the criticism at face value, I believe that it is meant to say that a person is “anti-capitalist” if he believes that businesses should have any kind of regulation, which is a position that largely ignores history and current world-wide business operation. It also is a misinterpretation of the term “capitalism.”

One of the basic assumptions of the theory of capitalism is the concept of “perfect competition,” which includes the concept of “perfect information,” meaning that all players in the market know all of the costs and prices of all goods at the same time. Since this is not possible in a real market, capitalism then becomes an exercise in balancing the use for “proprietary information” against the needs of the greater market, which requires some outside regulation (as was shown in the financial meltdown of 2007-08).

The increased use of Open Data is much more of a direct threat to capitalism as we know it than the specter of government regulation, since it has the potential (pun not intended) to alter the balance of the use of proprietary information by bringing us closer to the concept of “perfect information.” This is dangerous to the current state of capitalism because it lessens the level of competitive advantage that much of the system is based on.

As this understanding becomes more accepted, I anticipate a backlash against the idea, and I am concerned that it will be misinterpreted as “socialist” in nature. Strictly speaking, it is not, but it will be labeled as such based on the use of that label as “anything that threatens capitalism as we know it.” It will be interesting to see where this aspect of the adoption of Open Data goes in the next few years.

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