December 2010

It’s best served raw

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Un-spun govt data, mixed with Internet technologies, often yields solutions that are instantly rewarding for societies

Forward-thinking governments have been turning to open data as a way of increasing transparency and for adding economic and social value to the information they hold. This is leading to development of new kinds of interaction between the state and the society.

But what is open data? Does open government data (OGD) really matter? What are the big ideas in the current debate and what are the opportunities that lie ahead?

In the developed world, government data includes information on budgets, demographics, education, and public services, typically with geographic and historical detail. The Open Knowledge Definition states that this data is open if it can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone.  OGD expert David Eaves builds on this: data needs to be findable (clearly published and indexed by search engines), usable (available in a sensible format) and shareable (licensed appropriately).

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and vocal open data advocate, notes the distinction between the carefully curated statistics and messages that governments usually publish and the raw, un-spun source data behind, most of which is never seen. Berners-Lee’s message is to release “raw data now” because raw data made open, as we’ll see, is tremendously useful.

If you find a Website that’s full of public datasets in open, standard formats all licensed to encourage use and innovation, chances are it’s an OGD portal such as the USA’s data.gov or the UK’s data.gov.uk.

By opening up its data, the state is able to improve the way problems are dealt with at a city, state or national level

Freedom to push and right to pull

When discussing government transparency and openness, the freedom of information (FOI) laws usually come to mind. The Open Data Study published as part of the Open Society Foundations’ Transparency and Accountability Initiative, is an excellent primer on the subject as a whole. It can be found on www.soros.org. On FOI laws, the study notes, “There is a gap between initiatives that are based on governments giving out things that they want to give out, and governments creating rights that mean that they give things out all the time that they may be don’t want to give out.”

With FOI, if I want information, I have a legal right to request for it and to expect a response from someone in the government. With open data, there’s typically no legal right, but the government is proactively disclosing data and putting it online in a form that is findable, usable and shareable by anyone at any time. This data is published on OGD portals from the international to the hyper-local level; that’s when the public’s interaction with it begins.

Why does OGD matter?

Opening up government data multiples its economic and social value when it is made freely accessible to the public. This is the heart of Tim O’Reilly’s vision of government as a platform. This idea revolves around the theory that by opening up its data, the state is able to improve the way problems are dealt with at a city, state, national or international level. In this way, the state should be a convener and an enabler of the civic action, that can take place when modern Internet technologies are combined with government-provided data.

Now, even in Europe and North America where OGD initiatives have been making progress for much of the past decade, the idea of government as a platform still seems a little abstract. For those starting to think about OGD, there will immediately be concerns around the risks of releasing data in the first place, and inevitably, reasons for not doing so.

The risks of releasing data

At the CeBIT Australia Gov 2.0 Conference this year, Andrew Scott, the UK’s outgoing Director of Digital Engagement led a workshop that had participants listing the top reasons for not releasing government data. To some, these reasons read more like excuses with readily workable solutions, but any new OGD initiative will need to address the issues they raise. My favourites from the list include: “There’s no business case,” “We’re unsure about data quality,” “They can FOI it” and “It’s not in a useful format.”  Let’s consider these for a moment.

The business case is simple for a government with electronic data: the marginal cost of distributing it is zero, and its free availability leads to economically and socially beneficial innovation. Examples include using road accident data to produce a map of the most dangerous cycle routes in the UK; a site theyworkforyou.com providing British citizens with detailed information on their politicians, and a study of how openly available tax records saved Canada $3.2 billion offer a flavour of what has already been achieved.

A proven way of improving the quality of closed data is to open it to public scrutiny. From that point onwards, knowing it will always be openly available is a powerful incentive to improve the quality of data as it is produced, and indeed, to think about the policies and actions that have shaped it. A similar behavioural change occurs when it comes to the format used to publish data. Berners-Lee discusses the idea of a five-star rating system for open data.

A first step can be as simple as putting data online in any format—spreadsheets, images or PDFs. This act, if successful, involves overcoming key social and political barriers and paves the way for using more sophisticated, standardised, machine-readable interlinked data formats.

Thinking global and acting local

The individual actions of governments play a collective role in regional and global issues. It follows that governments could mutually benefit from opening their data. For example, The International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) involves bilateral and multilateral donors, as well as recipient countries publishing the details of aid funding in an open, standard format. This has the effect of making aid more effective by making it easier to administer, reducing the risk of diversion and improving coordination between donors.

While the focus of OGD was initially on national-level data, it is data on local services and government institutions that shows the most promise. This hyperlocal data, when timely, tangible and geographical, helps people to engage with the parts of government that most affect their daily lives.

Data is necessary but not sufficient

Tim Davies at the Oxford Internet Institute authored the report ‘Open data, democracy and public sector reform,’ which tries to rebalance the OGD debate towards civic, over technological or economic concerns. The report notes, “Data is not just for developers—direct access to trusted facts is valuable for many individuals in society; OGD changes the information gatekeepers—individuals, companies, the media and different parts of government can each advance their own interpretations of data; and OGD supports innovation in public services with social and commercial entrepreneurs playing a central role.”

It’s still early days for OGD. There are impressive examples of what is already possible when governments make finding, using and sharing their data easy for the public. There’s a mature debate around the initial risks and ongoing rewards of OGD initiatives, as well as high-profile open data portals, conferences and community groups.

My worry is the risk of viewing open data and the technology around it as an end in itself. It can be a big task and a significant cultural change for a government to start releasing good data across the board, but without the additional work of supporting citizens to use it, it might amount to little more than a political gesture. Taking a focused approach, by releasing the most asked for data first and engaging with the demand from users, may be a better option.

In this age, if the goal is to make a nation prosper and to improve the lives of its citizens, open data is necessary, but it’s the action people take when empowered by the information they hold that’s important.

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