2. Say hello to open

The open community

The need for transparency and accountability for government has always been seen by citizens as being fundamental to democracies. The grassroots movements have grown in many countries to improve government’s adherence to these principles. There was a watershed moment in 2011 when an international organization, called the Open Government Partnership (OGP) was created and now has 75 countries as members.

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The partnership is between government and civil society who represent the causes of citizens and actively contributes to the development of member state action plans every two years. There are many civil society organizations involved in the OGP, Open Knowledge International, the World Wide Web Foundation, and the Sunlight Foundation.

Canada became a member of the OGP in 2011. It adopted its 3rd national action plan last year and co-chaired the OGP’s Open Data Working Group. In 2017, it was elected as a member of the OGP’s Steering Committee. The OGP recently introduced 15 sub-national members and the Province of Ontario was one of the accepted governments. Several Canadian open data leaders and Canadian civil society organizations are involved in OGP activities.

What is open data?

The commonly accepted definition of open data is “Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone - subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike.” This essentially means providing your municipal data online at no cost with a standard end user license to allow re-use and redistribution.

All municipal data? No, municipal data, just like any data collected by public institutions, are subject to privacy legislation for personal information and other restrictions which limit it being made public (e.g. intellectual property). It’s important to understand the different states of data from closed (those data with only internal access) to shared data (with group-based access) to open (with public access and open to everyone). This spectrum helps identify different considerations while demonstrating that some public data are not released publicly based on perceived rather than real risks

What are the benefits and risks?

Here’s a video that should provide you with reasons why it’s valuable to undertake open data. This comes to us from the County of Grande Prairie, Alberta and one of the members of the project Advisory Committee.

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There are many reasons why governments have been opening up their data to the public. Fortunately, many governments before you have successfully demonstrated the impact of open data programs such as open weather data and GPS data. Here are some further ideas for defining the value proposition of open data:

Open data value proposition and benefits

Citizen and Community perspective

  • Ease of access to government information
  • Economic development opportunities leading to job creation
  • Reduced costs for government operations
  • Enhanced eService delivery
  • Non-profits ability to collaborate and use data for funding proposals
  • Apps for citizen and community
  • Increased opportunities for community engagement and collaboration to address societal needs

Business perspective

  • Economic development opportunitiesFootnote 1
  • Reduced costs to find and use government data
  • Start-ups that leverage the data
  • Value added resellers
  • Innovation through new products and services

Government perspective

  • Enhanced services to citizens and businesses
  • Reduced costs via internal access and less external Freedom of Information (FOI) and data requests
  • Improves departmental access to data, breaks down departmental silos and enhances decision making support
  • Data quality support from community use of the open data
  • Economic development
  • Increased citizen engagement, collaboration with business and community groups
  • Enhanced transparency and increased trust in public institutions

In all of this, it is important to appreciate that any open data initiative is established to benefit the local stakeholders: citizens, businesses, local special interest groups and academia.

Further reading:

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What are the risks?

When attempting to open government data at any level of government, it’s inevitable that some resistance will be encountered. It’s important for you to anticipate these conversations and be prepared to respond with answers.

Reasons not to open up public data Response to questions
1. No one cares about our data. You will not know until you have identified different type of data users and developed effective feedback mechanisms to gauge their interest and the potential ways that data could be used and reused.
2. It’s (data) not perfect. It’s not even good. Good is very subjective, especially if that assumption isn’t being expressed by current data users themselves. Data that isn’t perfect still offers very valuable information as long as data quality limitations are articulated. Imperfect data is an engagement opportunity.
3. No way, couldn’t the data we release be used by people with bad intentions If data can be requested by an access to information request, and doesn’t reveal the personal identity, then it should be accessible to the public. For example, public safety must not be jeopardized and in most cases sensitive data can be anonymized or masked to address these concerns.
4. Someone would need a professional degree just to understand the data. There are plenty of people with or without professional degrees who would like to use and reuse public data. Having access to public data is a right, not a privilege. More and more people are becoming data literate. These courses are offered online, as part of regular community meet-ups, and now integral to university curricula.
5. This is going to be so much work – I don’t have the time! We’re all very busy, but there are opportunities to release datasets that are already in good quality that requires minimum processing. This toolkit explains that you don’t have to move from closed to open overnight. Start small, test the waters, engage, build your pilot, explore the demand, and make the case for a larger initiative. One of the benefits is actual reduction of staff time for data requests.
6. We already sell it…oh, we don’t? Well….we should! The returns on investment and benefits of opening up data are now well documented. Selling data creates a barrier that constrains innovation and prosperity in your community. It’s important to lower the accessibility bar to benefit various users, like entrepreneurs and social innovators developing their business model, building a prototype, etc. It has also been found that the administrative costs for delivering the data outweigh the revenue.
7. We don’t know what “they” will find We simply can’t control the interpretation of datasets. However, like journalists who rely on their credibility, it’s highly unlikely that open data will generate false analysis without being discredited. And, well, what do you have to hide? Transparency is at the core of our democratic system. Many municipalities now routinely provide expenses of their politicians online.
8. If we give it to them they will just want more. Possibly! And that’s a good thing. But expectations should be managed proactively. Communicate your plan and let data users know the capacity that you have to meet their demand to avoid frustration or requests that simply can’t be met because of the workload involved at the early stage of your open data initiative. Freedom of information (FOI) requests have standard response times, so should open data.
9. No, it’s mine and you can’t have it! Really? Open data has changed the relationship between data producers and data users. Data producers or managers are responsible for the data. They are not the owners of public data, which is paid for by taxpayers after all. Government data is a public asset.
10. That’s what access to information requests are for Opening up data proactively according to open data principles will decrease the number of access to information request. It’s called proactive disclosure. The key is to make sure that people know where to find the data once it’s released, which is one of the core principles of open data (i.e. discoverability)