An Economic Argument for Open Data by Efraim Feinstein

There are two principles on which the success of data on the contemporary web rests: the web makes content available, and it adds value to that content by linking it to other related information.

When considering bringing old content online, both of these aspects are important. A first level of digitization involves simply making data available. Google Books and work at this level, providing PDFs and/or OCR-ed transcriptions of the material. A second level of digitization involves semantic linkage of the data, both internal to the site and external to the site. The Open Siddur Project and Open Scriptures digitize at the semantic level. This second-level digitization is required to do all of the cool things we expect to be able to do with online texts: click on a word and find its definition or grammatical form, find the source of a passage in one text in another text, find how the text has evolved historically, etc. Even the simplest form of a link: a reference from another site, requires some kind of internal division.

Digitization that takes advantage of the web therefore requires a number of steps: (1) getting the basic text online, (2) getting it in an addressable form (to make it more like typed text, instead of a picture of a page), (3) assuring the text’s accuracy, and (4) marking it up for semantic linkage. Some of these steps, or parts of them can be done automatically, but, overall, they require some degree of intelligent input. Even step 1, which is primarily mechanical in nature, requires design of the procedures.

I hope that this outline of the required steps to getting a text online suggests that the most expensive part of making content available is human labor — it takes time to do it, and it takes even more time to do it right.

And now for the rhetorical questions:

  • How many times has the Tanach been digitized?
  • … the siddur?
  • … the Talmud?
  • … major commentaries on the siddur, Torah, Talmud (Rashi, Tosefot)?
  • … full codes of Jewish law (Mishneh Torah, Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Aruch Hashulchan)?
  • … uncommon piyyutim (liturgical poems)?

In some cases, the answer is: it’s been done many times. In other cases, the answer is: it’s never been done. And, both answers lead the all-important question: why? Why are there so many digitizations of the Tanach and no full digitizations of Shulchan Aruch online? Why isn’t the siddur already hyperlinked to its Talmudic sources?

I would propose that we have been wasteful with our resources. Earlier, I pointed out that the primary resources that go into these advanced digitizations are time and human labor. In some cases, these resources equate directly to money, in others, the linkage is more indirect.

The core material of all of the above-mentioned works comes from the public domain. It is ownerless, and free for anyone to copy for any purpose. Every time we encounter a basic text that we have to digitize again because of “new copyright” claims or EULA-style contractual constraints, that is an indication of a failure somewhere in the system. This is particularly true if the claims are being made by non-profits, “social” businesses, or academic institutions. In the Jewish world, even for-profit published books are sometimes donation-supported. Each common text that has to be digitized a second, third, or hundredth time equates to another less common text that is not being digitized. Redoing basic OCR work and transcription takes resources away from establishing semantic linkages.

Some people and organizations get it. As of now, we only need one digitization of the Leningrad Codex (Masoretic Bible). That’s because Christopher Kimball and the J. Alan Groves Center for Advanced Biblical Research digitized it, transcribed it, and released it as free data. The Westminster Leningrad Codex is now perhaps the most built-off version of the Hebrew Bible online. The base texts (which may be used “without restriction”) are present in both commercial and non-commercial products. The Open Siddur Project is using it both for its technology demonstrations and as the basis of all biblical texts in the siddur.

There are precious few examples of free data in the Jewish community, even on the Internet. There are copious examples of donation-funded organizations presenting primarily public domain data with new copyright claims.

Free data prevents the necessity of duplication of effort, which, in turn, prevents the community as a whole from unnecessarily wasteful spending. Particularly for organizations with a social mission, its use is a win for everyone.

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