The Data Reformation

Jeni Tennison

This is a rough transcript (more or less my notes) of the beginning of my talk at Thinking Digital 2014, where I compared the changes that are currently being brought about through open data with the changes that happened 500 years ago, during the Protestant Reformation.


Lutherbibel by Torsten Schleese - Own photo taken in Lutherhaus Wittenberg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Today I am, not surprisingly, going to be talking about open data. But in particular I’m going to be talking about the impact that open data will have on our society, a change which I’m calling the Data Reformation.

Let’s first rewind about 500 years. This picture is of the German Language Bible, translated by Martin Luther. The fact that this Bible was written in German was literally revolutionary. Before Martin Luther, Bibles were written in Latin, they could only be read by scholarly monks. They were closed, available only to restricted sets of people. Martin Luther made his Bible open. He translated the Bible into German, the language that people actually spoke.

The German Language Bible was a crucial part of a massive social change that we now term The Reformation.

Before The Reformation, the Bible was walled off behind doctrine: essentially what monks and priests said the Bible said. Everything that normal people knew about what the Bible said was received second hand. Which of course meant that the monks and priests had tremendous power. They could ignore some bits of the Bible and emphasise others, and no one would ever know. The opening of the Bible, through its translation into the language that they spoke, enabled lay people to directly engage with the word of God.

And the effects of that were enormous. Wikipedia identifies three particular effects that I wanted to highlight.

  • People were able to test the fidelity of what monks and priests told them against what the Bible actually said. And naturally that led to changes in the power dynamic between the people and the church.

  • There was still the need for informed interpretation. It wasn’t the case that everyone sat and studied the Bible (although they could). There were lots of new interpretations. Some of them were slightly nuts. But the important thing was that because the Bible was open for everyone to read, there could be educated and informed arguments about these interpretations.

  • The availability of the Bible to individuals made them want to know more. They engaged more with what the Bible said, because they could read it themselves. And they changed their behaviour as a result, becoming more invested in and interested in what religion was to them.

Obviously you’re not here to listen to a lecture about religious events from 500 years ago. You’re here to learn about digital stuff! So what’s all that got to do with us, here and now? Well, the same changes that arose 500 years ago because of the publication of an open Bible are happening now because of open data.

There is the same dynamic at play. Currently, most data is locked behind a wall of analysis. We are reliant on statisticians and analysts to perform analyses, creating reports that tell us what the data says, in just the same way as lay people were reliant on monks and priests. We are reliant on them asking the questions that we are interested in and providing us with the summaries and visualisations that make sense of it for us.

But some organisations are starting to open up their data. They are making their data legally available for everyone to use and reuse and do with what they will. I think that this will have dramatic effects on our society, just as the Protestant Reformation did. Which is why I’ve decided to call this The Data Reformation.

Now there are all sorts of things going on with data right now, all sorts of interesting things that Big Data can tell us. All sorts of issues and concerns about the collection of personal data. There were all sorts of changes going on through the Protestant Reformation too.

But to me it was the opening up of the Bible that was the most subtly revolutionary part. It was that crucial step that turned the academic arguments within the church into a global movement, into a revolution.

And I think the same is true in the Data Reformation. We need data to be open to enable everyone to be involved in the conversations that we need to have about what data should be collected and what data should be shared. Because the Data Reformation will change our society, and we need everyone to be involved in that change.