Concerns and reasons not to open up GLAM data. Part 1 – Fear of Misuse

Over the last year, members of the OpenGLAM initiative have been talking with many representatives from cultural heritage institutions. We have had many interesting discussions about opening up collections and tried to overcome the many reasons and concerns institutions have not to open up their data and content. In this blogpost we will talk about these different reasons and try to give advice or solutions.

'Internetcrimineel' taken by Verbeeldingskr8. CC-BY-SA

‘Internetcrimineel’ taken by Verbeeldingskr8. CC-BY-SA

In most cases, we talked about the major legal and technical questions, which we have written extensively about on the OpenGLAM blog. But very often, also other concerns within the institution plays a role in not opening up the data. When we started writing these down, we quickly realised that this was too much for a single blogpost. We will therefore explore these concerns and their possible answers in series. We will start off with a couple of concerns which can be summarised as ‘the fear of misuse’ – intentional or unintentional. Many institutions fear that by opening up their data and making it freely available, they will lose track of what happens with their data, it will be used in the wrong context, by people with bad intentions, and the data will be ripped apart, losing all it’s value.

####People will misinterpret the data

By opening up the data you allow the user to access and re-use it without asking the institution first. It is hard for the institution to keep track of what happens with their data and how it is interpreted. While the curator has carefully selected and managed its collection, putting it freely online would allow the user to download it, and use and interpret it in ways that you would have never thought off.

The first step in overcoming this problem is documentation about how you think the data should be interpreted. As a curator you know most about how the collection is structured and why certain decisions were made, be prepared to help people answering their questions and correct people. At the same time, it is very likely that somebody out there knows more about your data than you do. By offering them a way to access your data and working with it, you allow them to spot errors or missing information, which they then can return to you. Several institutions have had great successes improving their collection and metadata by allowing the community to re-use it.

Finally, publishing it yourself might actually prevent wrong interpretations. When the data is online but not open, it can still be acquired via less legal means (scraping, or just right-click, save). By keeping the publishing and updating in your own hand, you can quickly point to the source data of your institution to refute the wrong interpretation.

####People with bad intentions will use my data in the wrong way

We see this concern mainly at institutions who have sensible material such as war museums. The fear is that people or groups with bad intentions will use their data in a harmful or wrong way. Very often, institutions add a sentence to their license to cover this, such as this example which says: ‘You may not use the photographs to mislead people. You may not use the photographs for unlawful or inappropriate purposes.’

This kind of restriction is very hard to interpret, after all, who decides that I am using this picture inappropriate? At the same time, the data can already be obtained by other slightly harder means as written above and it is incredibly hard for an institution to track this, let alone to get the user to take it down. By adding these restrictions, the average user who wants to research or use this data in a proper way is disadvantaged as it makes it not easier to understand the restrictions. At the same time, the license is not going to prevent people who want to do harm of doing it.

Also, when people decide to use your material in a really harmful way, there are other laws than copyright that can deal with this kind of misuse such as the several anti-racism and discrimination acts.

As a final remark we would like to highlight again the importance of well maintained metadata. Opening data is not about dumping it on the web and never look at it again. It is up to the institution to publish this with the relevant information. Tell the user what they can expect, what its flaws are, and who to contact when they have questions. Only this way both the users and the institutions can really benefit from an open culture ecosystem.

For more info about opening up your data the right way, see the OpenGLAM Principles. If you are an institution and have questions, feel free to get in touch directly. See also our documentation section.