Open Is Dead.

Open is dead.

That’s the conclusion I came to at a recent meeting of people gathered to talk about how to advance the Open Data agenda.

Open isn’t dead as a movement, it’s dead as a term that can be used to excite people, get them to rally around a cause, show up at an event, put themselves on the line for something.

Open Gov. Open Cities. Open Data. Open Source. All of these things are worthwhile things to pursue. All of the terms are tired and ineffective in advancing any agendas.

You’re never going to sell the wider world on the idea of Open. Other than the (relatively) small number of geeks who have already embraced it, people in general don’t care about Open. Politicians will never come out en masse for Open. Housewives (and house husbands) will never wake up thinking about Open.

Why? Because Open doesn’t seem to solve any of their immediate problems. It’s abstract. Fuzzy. It’s got a We Are The World feeling to it, but (like the song) there’s nothing concrete beneath that fuzziness.

If I’m a politician, why should I be in favor of Open Gov? If I’m a corporation, why should I be in favor of Open Data? That’s not clear. Certainly not by just hearing the name.

Okay, sure, Open Whatever sounds great if we’re talking about YOUR stuff being open. I love it when your stuff is open. (Free stuff!) But if we’re talking about MY stuff being open, what exactly is the value in that to me? I give away my stuff to… my competitors? My enemies? How does that work? What do I get out of that?

That’s what the term Open fails to explain, and what it HAS to explain if people who like Open are going to move it to the next level.

And the thing is, openness is not the end goal of Open. Open is a means to an end. It’s a means to a better, leaner, more reciprocal, more win-win ecosystem. And EVERYONE understands those terms. Even house husbands. So why are we stuck on this term Open, which doesn’t pack the full punch it needs to? It’s time to bury the term Open and move beyond it to more meaningful, value-apparent terms. It’s time to get rid of the Old Open and talk about the New Open. Shared. Mutual. Reciprocal. Symbiotic. Win-win. Those are terms and ideas that people understand and that have value to them.

And they’re the terms that people (like me) who think things should be more Open should be using.

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Stephen Peteritas

I think you are right, the term is played out but not the actual movement itself. This is the natural progression of things though it’s hard for something o stay new a fresh forever but that by doesn’t mean it becomes irrelevant.

Patricia Paul

Very good points, John. Do you think that the reason that “open” is coming to this moment of “put up or shut up” is because it was good and admirable to talk about as long as it doesn’t hurt “the me” who is doing the talking. You’re right, we want everyone to show us what’s behind the curtain–better yet–take the curtain down and operate totally in the eye of the public. That is admirable and something to strive for.

The difficult part comes when we try to reconcile actions that are seen as “necessary” and “in the public’s best interest” but cannot be disclosed to the public. If I can’t deal with what you’re doing, then something tells me I don’t want you to do it. And in the same mode–If I’m doing something that is in your best interest and can’t tell you about it, then maybe it really isn’t in your best interest. Maybe I need to rethink my plans and come up with something that everyone can agree on and be proud to have out in the “Open”.

Can we really be “Open”? It is something to strive for if we are willing to take the steps necessary to achieve it.

Whoops–I think that I went down a path a little off track with where you were headed.

John Geraci

Hi Patricia: I think advocates of Open-ness quietly assume an “us and them” stance toward things, while most of the world is still rooted in an “us versus them” mentality. If you’re thinking of things as “us versus them”, the idea of Openness seems downright bizarre – why give my opponents some of my resources? The Open label doesn’t do anything to address this gap in perception, so it has sort of hit a dead end in its usefulness. Everyone who gets it is on board, everyone who doesn’t isn’t going to budge.

I think to move Open forward, we have to couch it solidly in win-win terminology, make people understand how by sharing resources and creating open ecosystems everyone’s situation improves.

As far as what people/groups/companies choose to make open vs keep closed, that’s a thorny issue to tackle, and different for everyone. But again, if you think of the question along the lines of creating a “win win” environment or an open ecosystem, instead of just labeling it “Open”, I think it becomes easier to navigate.

Guy Martin


You’ve hit the nail on the head with regard to helping people identify ‘WIIFM’ (what’s in it for me?)

The reality I think people need to really consider is that not *everything* will always be Open. There, I said it. I’m making my living by helping organizations like the DoD realize what things can and should be made Open (even if that’s only ‘internally Open’), but, I realize that Open isn’t for everyone.

Ideally, I like to make the argument in terms of productivity, and ultimately, $$$. Specifically in the area of Open Source, for larger communities such as the Linux kernel, Apache, etc. there is a multiplier effect that makes it much more cost effective to participate in those communities rather than attempting to build those things yourself.

I’ll grant that Open Data is a little murkier in terms of immediate value, but I think more apps that utilize the Open Data need to be written before we make a final judgement on that.

What replacement term do you propose to make ‘Open’ cool again?


Christopher Whitaker

Don’t look at Chicago – it would blow your theory.

Chicago government used to be very tight lipped, but now they have released a ton of data ( Once the data was released, the app contest began and the app contest is what gets the coverage. Reports at the Tribune have been running stories on the recently released data. (And they’re working on a project that will connect data with newsrooms called the PANDA project)

See also

Spot Hero (Winner of the first round in our app contest)

Open. Is. Not. Dead.

John Geraci

Hi Christopher,

That totally underscores my comment. People are rallying around the apps, not around the idea of “open”. Apps are value that people understand, tangibles. They excite people. They sway people. That’s what we need to speak in terms of more often.

Thanks for your examples.

Christopher Whitaker

I think people do understand the concept The sites that I listed were built on open data. John Fritchey (Cook County Commissioner) helped get the whole lookatcook site going by teaming up with developers who built the site ..FOR FREE

Why? Because they understand they like open government. They’ve also put the source code for the lookatcook site and chicagolobbyist site on github so anyone can use it.

The Chicago Tribune gets the open government concept. They TribApps unit talks to the city’s data officer. They’re using the data. They’re building PANDA – which is may be a little obscure now – but it will be a big freaking deal when it launches.

If Open was dead – this kind of thing would NOT be happening.

John Geraci

Christopher I’m a big advocate of open everything – open data, open gov, open cities. I believe in it, and I think it’s something that is going to take over the world and help make it a better place. I’m not arguing with the concept of openness, I’m arguing with the label of “Open”. It’s a non-starter for anyone who doesn’t already get the core ideas that it suggests. So if we’re going to get more people to adopt the idea, beyond the (relatively small) group of people who have adopted it up til now, we’re going to have to use terms that are easier for newcomers to grasp and that convey the value more innately.

Andrew Krzmarzick

We’ve got to stick with “Open” –

1) it’s the term that the Obama Administration is using to mandate reform and is part of the official nomenclature … to change now would further erode momentum and progress as it would confuse the already strong association with the terminology among those who have not adopted

2) local iterations of the movement have adopted this language and are building on the Federal initiative

3) the international movement is now using it as part of the Open Government Partnership

On top of that, none of the alternatives presented above are as simple and clear as “Open.”

And this is coming from a guy who strongly advocated for language change around social media early on…

Jay Johnson

Good discussion, some thoughts: Organizational change expert Dr. John Kotter teaches that the first, and largest, obstacle to change is developing a sense of urgency. What is the vision of the change? Maybe that’s what Open needs, a statement of vision for the future to complement the one word description so common in our language today. Also, instead of WIIFM, you could show What Am I Missing Out On? – by not embracing Open.

Doniele Ayres

Interesting conversation. I agree that the end state of OPEN is Shared, Mutual Reciprocal. In a business relationship I think you have to use the term and the concept of OPEN. Most information is proprietary and restricted but the partnership relationship is what you are trying to build. Think of it as the OPEN Source community that builds software. Everyone contributes, everyone wins. Open isn’t dead.

David Fletcher

Open is generally good. I’ve always pushed it as important, but it is not the only thing and some people try to make it the only thing. It’s also not new. Many of us have been trying to share data for years, but it was never really a movement like it has been recently. Also, when some try to push it to far so that it impinges on privacy or security that can also create problems with a wide range of implications. It also needs to be sensitive to economics, just like everything else. If we can establish a clear economic value or benefit it is much more likely to succeed.

Hubert Guillaud
Yes, everyone loves Open (David Cameron, Barack Obama, people of Occupy Wall Street, German pro hacker party, me too), but we don’t share the same definition. You’re right. Open is not magic. In France, we prefer speak aboutre-use of public data”. It’s a way to show that the most important is in the process (access, data interoperability, application development, linking with a community of innovators and developers…) rather than the result.
Andrea Schneider

Open in the context of Gov has become synonymous with accountability, data, transparency which in turn has focused on data, websites, hackathons, technology apps, and other related things, an important part of much needed change, but a very limited view of what needs to happen.

My frustration is it defines a small universe and does not get at other strategies, equally important to address how we can more effectively deal with public challenges, beyond apps, new websites, etc. It is a relatively small group who love to work with the technology of Open Gov, but it is not at all the universe of everything going on. It’s unfortunate that a broad concept has become so limited.

I see technology and all its cousins as a profound tool, not the driver of innovation. The whole focus on data leaves a lot of everyday Americans out of the loop. They may be happy they have 311 to call or a better bus app, but how is it changing the system itself and how it works for the end user at the end of the day? The focus on technology has to be woven into a much wider agenda, be more inclusive and tangible to a lot more people.

Chris Poirier

@ Andrea has a good point here. It is not lost on me that “open” is considered a “small” enclave of people and things inside the beltway focused on “transparency” etc. I think we do need to get into the heart of the issue and engage more in the conversation. I don’t think anyone here is saying that any concept associated with the term “open” is bad or un-useful, in fact I think everyone’s comments are underscoring the problem. (everyone has a different view of the “same” thing.)
So how do we unite these issues and reignite the fire to get people engaged again?

“open” is a word, what we’re trying to accomplish is an action or series of actions. It’s really about engagement at all levels of government and citizens. It’s about access, it’s about transparency, it’s about sharing, and it’s about being part of something. (..and all those other things! apps, web 2.0, social media, hard copy media, etc.) Speaking in a single, understood nomenclature is important, but I feel like we’ve been straying from the mission, from the goal of actively engaging one another in our greater communities (and sub-communities). isn’t it really social/citizen/active engagement?? (which encompasses the many layers everyone has talked about so far??)