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Open Data Essentials

Open Data Defined

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The term “Open Data” has a very precise meaning. Data or content is open if anyone is free to use, re-use or redistribute it, subject at most to measures that preserve provenance and openness.

There are two dimensions of data openness:

  1. The data must be legally open, which means they must be placed in the public domain or under liberal terms of use with minimal restrictions.

  2. The data must be technically open, which means they must be published in electronic formats that are machine readable and non-proprietary, so that anyone can access and use the data using common, freely available software tools. Data must also be publicly available and accessible on a public server, without password or firewall restrictions. To make Open Data easier to find, most organizations create and manage Open Data catalogs.

Open Data Licenses

Organizations and governments use Open Data licenses to clearly explain the conditions under which their data may be used. Many licenses include both a summary version, intended to convey the most important concepts to all users, and a detailed version that provides the complete legal foundation. Examples include:

Standard licenses can offer several advantages over bespoke licenses, including greater recognition among users, increased interoperability, and greater ease of compliance.

Additional Reading

These links provide more information on the definition and licensing of Open Data.

Examples of Open Data

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Open Data initiatives can be organized at different levels and often overlap jurisdictions. Country-level initiatives feature data at the national level and below, and are often federated, which means that they aggregate various sources of data at a single location. City and subnational initiatives are similar in design but with a smaller scope. Individual agencies or sectors may have their own data with a specific thematic focus. Other sources may contain specific kinds of data, such as statistical indicators, geospatial data or microdata, such as business and household surveys.

Country initiatives are usually organized at the national level or below; city initiatives have a smaller scope; and agency data is often focused on a theme.

Following are some examples of Open Data at national, state or individual agency levels and for specific subjects. These lists are not intended to be complete, as the total number of official Open Data initiatives runs well into the hundreds. More examples can be found at and the Open Data Census.

Country-Level Open Data

City- & Subnational-Level Open Data

Open Data by Sector/Topic

The following are examples of Open Data for specific sectors and topics. For examples of applications that use some of these data sources, see Uses of Open Data.

Uses of Open Data

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For Open Data to have impact and value, it must be put to use. Hence, making data usable is the core component of a successful Open Data initiative. Usable data frequently have complete metadata.

When Open Data is used for new products or services, it can increase data demand – and drive the release of more datasets and improvements in data quality.

Two indicators of a successful Open Data initiative are when developers harness Open Data to produce new and valuable products and services, or when they integrate Open Data into existing products and services. In an ideal scenario, this leads to a “virtuous cycle,” where new products increase demand for Open Data, which catalyzes the release of more datasets, the development of new applications and so forth. A similarly patterned cycle can lead to improvements in data quality; that is, as users raise questions and provide feedback on data they are trying to use, data providers have an opportunity to improve metadata and other background information.

The following list includes examples of applications built on Open Data, grouped by subject. Many were developed for competitions, hackathons or other demand-side activities to promote the use of Open Data for specific purposes.


  • mWater. A free suite of tools that uses GPS, cloud-based computing and mobile technology to create an integrated approach to managing water and sanitation services and preventing waterborne diseases and their impacts on communities.

  • Save the Rain. This app shows users how they can help reduce the impact of the alarming worldwide drop in annual rainfall predicted by The World Bank. Using maps and a novel “rooftop rainwater harvesting” approach, users estimate the amount of rainwater they can potentially save each year.

  • Ecofacts. A small app that provides information about energy consumption and climate change, and how their effects on the environment can be influenced by citizens and communities.

Budget and Spending

  • OpenSpending. This app tracks government financial transactions worldwide and presents them in useful, engaging formats that appeal to a variety of users, from schoolchildren to data geeks. It features an open database of financial information; a community of users and contributors; and a set of open resources with technical, fiscal and political data.

  • Moldova BOOST. The Moldova BOOST database was constructed at the request of the Minister of Finance based on the detailed treasury data provided to the World Bank by the Center for Information Technologies in Finance. This technical manual is intended to provide users with the background information they require to understand the database structure as well as how to produce basic analysis with BOOST.

  • BudgIT.Nigerian nonprofit promoting transparency and accountability in budget and public resources through infographics, data analysis, and presentations.

Health and Education

  • CheckMySchool. In an effort to improve public education services, this monitoring program combined digital technology and community mobilization to promote accountability and transparency. It provided easy access to information and a platform for feedback, and helps citizens and government officials collaboratively resolve education issues.

  • Hospital Locator. The Star newspaper in Kenya created a special portal to feature coverage of key health issues, with tools designed to help citizens make informed choices on their healthcare. It includes a Hospital Locator application to help citizens to find health facilities closest to their homes.

Public Service Delivery

  • Elgin (UK street works). Roadworks Information Unlimited delivers real-time access to information on road repair and construction for local authorities, motorways and truck routes across England and Wales via websites, navigation systems and mobile devices. Users can view where and when road work is taking place and who is responsible and assess transportation impacts.

  • PoliceUK. This app enables citizens to engage with police and promotes community activism in support of crime prevention. It provides snapshots of street-level crime occurrences and outcomes, by category, using maps and data from local policing teams and beat meetings.

Open Government

  • Civic Commons. An information product that helps governments and institutions share knowledge, solutions and best practices to make better use of technology and advance Open Data and Open Government. It supports a community of civic technologists by sharing not only a repository of government and civic apps and information, but also its application code.

  • Socrata Open Data Applications. A repository of examples that demonstrate how Open Data is enabling civic applications.

  • GotToVote!. A data-driven tool to help citizens decipher and act on news-related issues by showing how national events, such as elections, affect them personally. Built as a Code4Kenya data journalism project, the tool provides citizens with local election results contextualized with information about community trends and reports on irregularities.


  • DataViva. With more than 100 million interactive visualizations, this tool opens government data – including exports, locations and occupations – for the entire formal sector of the Brazilian economy and creates a foundation for dialog between public and private sectors.

  • Open Data Impact Case Studies. Includes examples of open data use in low-and-middle-income countries for a range of social, economic, and sustainable development impacts. These use cases were developed by New York University's GovLab.