Where to find free and open data sets on the web

Bosses love to hear the word “free.” Everyone wants to get something for nothing. The good news is that there’s a burgeoning collection of free data available for the taking. Some of it might even be useful for your project or your career.

What’s the catch? Sometimes there’s no catch at all. Many of the sources below come from government agencies. Once they’re done collecting the information, it often costs them very little to share it openly with everyone. Technically it’s not free because you’re paying for it on April 15th. But the good news is that your project budget won’t feel the pinch.

Other data collections are a subtle form of advertising. All of the major cloud companies host various collections of open data sets. You don’t need to use their cloud servers, but the performance will be that much better when the bits are stored in the same data center. The cloud companies could be purchasing 30-second spots on the Super Bowl, but this form of advertising is a better strategy for everyone.

The one danger with working with cost-free data is that the boss will assume that it’s also trouble-free. Many times the data will require a bit more work on your part. Perhaps the government agency that collected it liked to use its own peculiar format. Perhaps the data needs to be re-aggregated for your needs. There’s a good chance you’re going to need to write a bit of code to get it to work.

Some of the data projects function like open source software and work best when everyone contributes their own small part. I have a weather station in my backyard hooked up to the Personal Weather Station network that gathers data from close to a quarter million different citizen scientists. Participation is essential, but you’ll be able to leverage the work of everyone else at the same time. If your work is going to help build these projects, be prepared to pull your weight with project management.

The good news is that the barriers to entry are small. You don’t need to ask permission and you don’t need to beg forgiveness. Here are N different corners of the web to just start downloading and exploring.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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