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Weaving Open Data Strands Into Government Dna (Part I)

The World Wide Web Foundation was established in 2009 by Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee to address the fundamental obstacles to realising his vision of an open Web available, usable, and valuable for everyone. Jose M. Alonso leads the foundation’s wo...


Alonso is also Co-chair of Spain’s National Open Data initiative and also sits in the European Commission and United Nations expert panels. Furthermore, he manages research studies in Ghana, Chile and Indonesia, and several Open Data implementations for local and regional governments.

Why do you think is it difficult for governments to “let go” and share data? In your point of view, how can you break down this cultural resistance to sharing data?

This is a cultural barrier, and we all know that cultural barriers are the hardest to overcome.

Governments are used to being the authoritative source of data and access to the data is typically (heavily) regulated. When one starts to talk about opening up data with governments, many alarms go off: privacy, security, confidentiality, loss of control, and quality among others. I find there are a strong sense of ownership and a fear of opening up - probably due to all these concerns.

Furthermore, it is often not within the formal mission of a government ministry, agency or department to provide access to data. That is why open data can often be seen as a distant, not interesting and not easily understandable problem.

Breaking down such resistance can be done via top-down mandate (as has happened in several cases) but, whilst top-down support is clearly useful, it is not enough. A successful shift in culture needs to be built at all levels of government, and this needs time, sensitivity, respect and, frankly savoir faire.

Governments must understand that placing information on the Web solely as an informative resource, although important and required by policies in many cases, is not enough anymore. Citizens and civil societies are asking for access to the raw data so that they can use it in new and valuable ways. Governments have to respond to this demand, not only to meet their public service requirements, but also because they see the benefits of doing so. They must educate their relevant agencies and departments as to the benefits of open data, and incentivise them to put best practices into place. Frequently, lack of awareness and capacity is hindering the potential benefits of making data public. Small scale experimentation to prove concept can be a great help here. Ultimately, publishing raw data in open, accessible formats should be a new goal for state agencies and should be embedded in their strategies. Readiness for change and the best path to success varies from country to country. Although using carrots works reasonably well in several scenarios, the use of sticks is sometimes needed, too. To this extent, the work done by organisations such as Sunlight Foundation in the United States, MySociety in the United Kingdom or the Smart Citizen Foundation in Chile - not to mention the numerous civil society groups who have been working on government transparency and accountability for decades - is also of great importance.

Open data is not a one-time only exercise. It’s about fostering a culture of openness and accountability in governments; in your point of view what initiatives should governments put in place to foster this culture?

I see open data as a six dimensional issue: political, legal, organisational, technical, social and economic. Combined action in all those dimensions is needed for a vibrant open data ecosystem to emerge and succeed in the long term.

I’ve been promoting the idea of “putting open data in the DNA of government systems” as crucial to success. There are four strands to this DNA:

Get the policy making bits right: open data release in the context of a clear policy makes a big difference. This requires an investment in awareness raising and capacity building within governments to address resistance to change.

Leverage a multi-stakeholder model and try to marry demand and supply sides as early in the process as possible. Good ideas can come from everywhere, and approaching the issues with an open mind can really create sustainable success.

Context is everything. What works in one country might be totally different in another. Understand the six-dimensional context and do not blindly try to replicate what others did before. Rather - pick, choose and adapt best practice as appropriate to the particular context.

Measure impact to prove success. Monitor, evaluate and close the feedback loop. Many initiatives have been started without clear goals. Although some of them are successful, it is risky in the long run not to have clearly defined goals and metrics. Metrics can assess performance and can also drive a shift in strategy if success is not being achieved.

Alongside the ‘soft’ benefits of improved openness and accountability, opening up data sets can result in ‘hard’ benefits, such as improved government efficiencies and business generation for entrepreneurs and companies in general.

How can governments benchmark their openness? Is there a standard metric in place to gauge how successful governments are at openness?

Open data and open governments are pretty new subjects and it is still difficult to benchmark them. Although there is no standard just yet, there are some emerging methods in the open data space. There is the well-known 5-star scale developed by our founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee that mainly addresses the technical dimension and the emerging open data certificate for data sets. As part of the Web Index, we launched the open data index in late 2012, a first attempt at benchmarking countries’ open data performance.

However, we believe a holistic approach is needed. We have built a methodology for assessing open data readiness and conducted research studies in Chile and Ghana - and in Indonesia. We are also building a more comprehensive common assessment framework for open data based in the six dimensional approach; and we are complementing it by commissioning 17 case studies in 14 countries to understand the impact of open data in specific topic and geographical areas as part of the “Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC)” project we have recently launched. We hope this will lead to constructing a solid foundation for open data benchmarking.

In the second part of this interview, Alonso will talk about different open government initiatives, what’s working well and what isn’t, and the exciting initiatives the World Wide Web Foundation has in the pipeline.

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