Open Government Data: Freedom to push and right to pull
It can be a big task and a significant cultural change for a government to start releasing good data across the board
ICTPost Governance Bureau
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.
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.
The 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. firstname.lastname@example.org