On Open Data, the Domesday Book and public policy

Published on the Policy By The Numbers blog: As an open data and open government advocate, I get drawn into conversations with developers, dataset owners and bureaucrats about the difficulty in identifying, cleaning and then publishing datasets in the open. As a historian, I know that half the challenge in good economic history is identifying the appropriate data sources.

Nine hundred and twenty six years ago, William the Conqueror ordered a thorough survey of the property and economy of his recently acquired British Islands. Teams of commissioners visited 13,000 villages, towns and estates and interviewed up to 62,000 witnesses. Their work produced the data that has become known as the Domesday Book.

This data proved critical for developing strategy in the new Norman Court. Facing civil unrest and foreign invasion, the Court needed an accurate count of the financial and human capital available while evaluating their economic, political and military options.

Although there had been previous surveys, inquests and local roll-taking elsewhere in Europe, the Domesday Book looms as a landmark in data collection and analysis in the West. It provides a snapshot of the wealth, land holdings, animal population, household possessions and feudal relationships among the gentry and nobility in William’s kingdom. Really, it’s a record of how the 1% rolled a thousand years ago.

Collecting the data was not an easy process. In fact, the standards for data collection were constantly evolving as the survey was conducted; agricultural, economic and seigneurial data sources had not been combined before; the process of reviewing and correcting data was initially quite cumbersome; and the final product was still the product of a particularly focused and determined individual.

Today, technology has made the collection of social, economic and simply transactional data far simpler, but we haven’t really begun to systematically explore how these volumes of data can help governments and communities address their fundamental public policy challenges. Much of the initiative around open data has been the result of the energetic efforts of a small number of innovators and their supporters. Open data is still largely characterized by the small scale project with localized relevance.

Which makes the Open Domesday project a wonderful link between the past and present. Thanks to academics at the University of Hull and Anna Powell-Smith, an open data volunteer, the data from the Domesday Book has been translated for the technology age. Open Domesday lets the ordinary web surfer sort through this historic data by location, name or by reference to the book itself. The results are overlaid on contemporary maps of Great Britain. The ability to easily drill through centuries of history and reveal data about a community, a family or a region like this is stunning. Data collected ages ago continues to deliver results and insight.

The lasting impact of the Domesday book is often fresh in my mind when I think about the open data initiatives being launched around the world. The capacity to liberate and share data is only just beginning to affect our relationship with the government and with our communities. With every new collaboration, whether at a local level, with the World Bank, the United Nations or through the Open Government Partnership, we can imagine open data achieving scale and an impact similar to that of the Domesday Book in its time.