A Year of Open Government Data: Transparency, but also Innovation

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog: http://blogs.talis.com/nodalities/2011/01/opengov-data.php

Towards the end of 2010, Wikileaks generates many headlines as it publishes information on the web, causing controversy and leading to talk about politicians hiding information from the public. Reporters and commentators express shock or admiration when telling the story of a rogue organisation making governmental information public. What has not been as mainstream is that for the past year or more, governments around the world have been doing something very similar themselves: publishing information online.

Big names like President Obama, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the headliners at big events like the International Open Government Data Conference favour publishing public data for transparency and benefits to society. This all finally began to take off in 2010. Governments from around the world have been developing their public information strategies, with the launches of data.gov and data.gov.uk and data.govt.nz.

This is all taking place at a time of economic restraint. Dr Martin Read from the UK Cabinet Office’s Efficiency Reform Board explained in a recent interview: “If you are going to improve the efficiency of something, making that change involves risk and innovation … If they get it wrong, they’re hauled up in front of a committee for interrogation.” (moderngov, November 2010) It may seem tricky to justify the expense of big projects like data.gov.uk, and there certainly seems to be a huge amount of pressure.

Nevertheless, governments are proving themselves committed to prioritising data publishing. Towards the end of last year, the UK Prime Minister announced that every item of governmental spending over £25,000 will be published online, and updated monthly. He emphasised the importance of this publication in terms of transparency, inviting the public to scrutinise the data. Interestingly, he also said: “This scrutiny will act as a powerful straightjacket on spending, saving us a lot of money.” So, not only is data publishing seen as a benefit to democracy, but also as a useful way to “flag up waste”.

While that press conference was taking place, developers and civil servants were gathered together elsewhere at the Open Government Data Camp (disclosure, Talis was a sponsor). At the event, much was made of the modelling and tools which have been developed with open data in mind: particularly the Linked Data API, which allows developers from just about any web background to work with data.gov.uk’s data very quickly. Visualisations demonstrated what can be done with well-structured data.

One of the things this high-level data publishing has done is raise the standard for what can be published and developed. Last year, we built a proof-of-concept app for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to illustrate the potential of applications of this data. A few minutes spent on DEFRA’s UK Climate Projections site shows what can happen when raw data is matched with a plan, and is designed with a citizen in mind. Anyone can check the primary source for their government’s climate policy, and it doesn’t take a climatologist to understand it. A little further development allows fully-fledged applications to be built that are instantly useful: one available on the front page of data.gov.uk lets me download an app that helps me plan my cycle route!

Open government data is probably good for transparency. But it’s also got a plenty of potential to seed ideas that add value to this information. Innovators know that there are more people with better ideas outside our organisations than could possibly be in them, so sharing means that they can be developed into products and services that are mutually beneficial to everyone. The web industry routinely works with open-source software that’s been at least partly built by others, and this open-source mentality might just be an incredibly useful piece in the public-sector machinery. Open business models work very well with ideas.

2011 promises to be the year when all this data gets put to use. I was recently invited to a press conference at which the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed the UK’s commitment to published data as a priority and even a recognised civil liberty. The story will shift to more local applications of big public data tools. January will see the publication of local authority’s spending data, and public bodies will be looking to add value to this data, bringing the headlines of open data to life in the places we live.

With a bit of thought into how data is published in the first place, and a plan for encouraging people with good ideas to work with this information, this investment in data publishing could be more than just a tick-box exercise for a political transparency agenda. I hope that this year, it won’t be Wikileaks-level events that get people talking about open data publishing. We should notice it improving services we use, and see whole new applications for the bits and pieces of information that make up our public lives.

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