Archive for December, 2010

The four noble truths of open data

In October this year Chris McDowall wrote a post called The Zen of Open Data 1. This got me thinking, somewhat quizzically, about the relationship between Zen thinking and ‘open’ thinking. In commenting on the post Chris and I came up with the somewhat tongue in cheek ‘Four Noble Truths of Open Data’:

  1. Life means suffering.
  2. The origin of suffering is email attachments in proprietary formats and data embedded in PDFs
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable through open standards and APIs.
  4. Open data is the path to the cessation of suffering.

So, apart from a pun on the word ‘attachment’, what am I on about here? What does Zen thinking have in common with ‘open thinking’?

Firstly, my understanding of what Zen’s four noble truths2 mean, then a comparison with open data.

One way I’ve heard ‘life means suffering’ explained, is that ‘life is unsatisfactory’. Life, due to our own limitations, it is imperfect. It’s not that the universe is somehow imperfect, it’s that due to the way we perceive and process our interactions with the universe, our experience of it is unsatisfactory.

The origin of this suffering is our attachment to the things we desire. We desire material possessions, wealth, popularity, love, happiness. We crave for these things when we don’t have them, and cling to them when we do. We even cling to our own idea of self, to our own continued existence. These things are not inherently bad or wrong, but they are transient, impermanent. The inevitable loss of them, or even the fear of their possible loss, causes us to suffer.

But it’s OK. Because the cause of our suffering is internal, not something outside us that we can’t control, we can do something about it. All we have to do is to let go of these attachments. There is a way to do this, a set of actions and ways of thinking that take us out of suffering. Buddhism calls this the Eightfold Path3, and it comprises things like right intention, right speech, right action.

So what does all this have to do with open data? While I facetiously said that the origin of suffering is email attachments in proprietary formats, perhaps it is a valid comparison. What are proprietary formats if not an effort by the company that designed them to hold on to market share, to control their customers, to protect against loss of them as a source of revenue? When a public (or even private) sector organisation puts up arguments that it shouldn’t release data, what are they expressing? Things like it’s our intellectual property, people might misinterpret it, it might damage our reputation, are these not all simply fears of loss?

At a deeper level, is it that opening up data is to acknowledge that the boundary around an organisation is simply an idea, an arbitrary construct? Do people in those organisations feel, at some level, less safe the more diffuse that boundary becomes?

Buddhism teaches that it is not easy to let go of attachment. Our idea of self as an independent entity, and our desires for things, are deeply entrained. Is this also the case with organisations moving to open up their data?

If so, what is the path? I suggest that use of open standards, of licensing terms that permit reuse in some way, and describing your data in a catalogue, are a good way to begin the journey. Letting go, even in this small way, is the first step to acknowledging the possibility that we are all part of something bigger.


  1. The Zen of Open Data –
  2. The Four Noble Truths –, and
  3. The Noble Eightfold Path –
Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.
Muhammad Ali