TAIPEI — I recently had the pleasure of teaching a two-day data journalism workshop at the Commonwealth Magazine Group in Taiwan’s capital city. The signature moment came when I showed these journalists the L.A. Times crime map, and explained that it updated automatically from government data feeds.
There were gasps from my audience. “Why does the government publish all of that crime data, online, for free?” they asked.
I realized I didn’t have a quick answer to that. In the United States, in 2013, it’s widely assumed that governments on all levels should make their data available for public use. But why? How did we get here? And, importantly, how do other countries get there?
Since then I’ve been trying to understand the history of open data in the U.S. The underlying right to data access comes from the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, and a 1996 update which requires that frequently requested information be made available online. Less obvious, but no less important: American journalists have long been agressive in asking, cajoling, or suing to get access to data. It is the combination of enlightened laws plus a long history of people claiming their rights under these laws that makes transparency seem so natural now. There are entire institutions devoted to the concept, such as the Sunlight Foundation.