Before starting my career in the tech world I managed art collections, physically and digitally. I studied Art History so I got a kick out of (i.e. was completely in awe of) handling Picassos or getting close enough to a Man Ray print to document its every physical flaw. I entered grad school with plans of becoming an archivist, but fell deeply in love with the tech world after discovering the innovative side of data management. Not only could I continue to work with data, but I could reach a wider audience doing it using cool technology. I joined eager to contribute to the mission of being the most abundant meaningful, collaborative, and abundant data resource in the world. While looking for data to add to our platform, I have found data collections assembled and described beautifully, but with a key attribute missing: a license.

I’ve researched several government data portals in my endeavors, and in the process ran across An Open Letter to the Open Data Community penned by Harvard’s Civic Analytics Network, “a consortium of Chief Data Officers and analytics principals in large cities and counties throughout the United States”. It’s a call to action for members of the open data community that provides eight guidelines that, “if followed, would advance the capabilities of government data portals across the board and help deliver upon the promise of a transparent government.” I read it immediately, and found that despite the excellent points they made they failed to mention a roadblock I’d run across several times at that point, the absence of a license. Without a license advancements with data have the potential to be thwarted.

The eight guidelines they covered were spot-on, for example metadata management, versioning, and logistical pricing concerns. Making data open in government requires going down a path that includes legislation, budgeting for a data platform, finding internal and external open data stakeholders, training staff on opening their departments’ data, and beyond. Every accomplishment on that path is admirable in agencies known for their sometimes hindering bureaucracies. Yet, not including a decision on a license in that process is robbing open data of its full potential. Publishing and describing the data may provide access and transparency, but not providing a license (i.e. instructions on how consumers can use the data) means there are technically no stepping stones available for people to take the data and use it.

At we strive to share as much open data as possible. From small datasets like the MOMA’s Exhibition dataset which has a CC0 license, to the Census’ American Community Survey. Reflecting back on the article from Harvard’s Civic Analytics Network that inspired me to write about licensing, I’d like to propose adding a ninth bullet to the guidelines: Require an Open Data License and Communicate it Clearly.

Does your open data have an open data license? Are you sure? There are several details that you may not know are keeping your data from being completely open. Find out how to assess your data’s openness in the 5 Things Open Data Publishers are Doing to Keep their Data Closed.

If you’d like to distribute your own data for others to use in a professional context, read how you can use for data distribution here.