An open government should be as all-inclusive in its information sharing as possible. Information often has restrictions placed on it for a wide variety of reasons and wherever possible, your government should attempt to remove these when it releases the information. There are legal, financial, technical, physical, and intellectual restrictions that need to be watched out for. However, it’s also important that you recognize that sometimes there are legitimate reasons for restricting information – and will share some of those with you.
Legal restrictions include laws, policies, and contracts that restrict the use or reuse of information. Examples include intellectual property (e.g. copyright) and license agreements (e.g. end-user license agreements or terms of services), laws and policies protecting individual privacy and confidentiality (e.g. HIPAA), and laws protecting other sensitive information (e.g. trade secrets, information relating to national security). Legal restrictions can wildly vary from one government to the next. In the United States for example, any information generated by the work of a federal employee cannot be copyrighted, although this is not true for all state and local governments. Elsewhere in the world, commonwealth countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom have what is called “crown copyright”, which means that everything produced by the government is owned by government (i.e. the crown).
Financial restrictions are limitations due to cost. This is simple: if they’re charging you for it, it may be accessible, but it’s not freely (“free” as in beer) accessible. While it may make sense for governments to charge for certain types of data in order to offset the cost of collecting the data in the first place, there may be additional reasons to make it freely available. The cost may also unfairly bias who can access the data, for example by only making it available to the well-off, but not the poor.
Technical restrictions include data that is in an archaic, non-standard, or proprietary format or that uses digital rights management (DRM) to restrict it from being copied. As government often runs on older computers with proprietary software, this is a fairly common problem but with a little thought and research, it’s also one that’s pretty easy to solve.
Physical restrictions are just what you’d expect. If there is only one copy of the data and it’s kept in a safe at city hall, it’s not really very accessible, is it? This is also fairly easy to overcome once everyone is aware of the problem.
Intellectual restrictions come from information that is unintelligible, incomplete, or ambiguous. A couple of examples are missing metadata or use of insider terms or jargon. Missing metadata will make it very difficult to find the information as well as understand it. Use of jargon may make the entire set of information confusing and impossible for you to make sense of.
These restrictions limit access to information – some on purpose and some by accident – but some restrictions are really important. For example, top secret data should not be released (Loose Lips Sink Ships), corporate trade secrets (they don’t own them), and personally identifiable information (PII) in order to protect your privacy as a citizen. While open governments seek to avoid inappropriate restrictions on the data they release, they also understand that sometimes data has to be restricted.