Research: The Open Government Data Project

This Post has been first published on Access-Info: Open Government Data and is actually circulating various E-mailing lists. I think it is a really important initiative and worth reblogging it.

Open Government Data Project: Research project by Access Info and the Open Knowledge Foundation, in collaboration with the Open Society Information Program, to map out and evaluate the current state of initiatives to promote access to government data in formats that can be freely used, reused, and distributed by anyone. The project will also identify the obstacles to accessing and reusing public data and recommendations for future initiatives to address these.

On this page you can read more about the issue and find out how you can get involved in the project.

What is open government data?

The release of databases and other collections of information by government departments in formats that can be freely used, reused and distributed. Release is generally proactive, without the need for access to information requests.

  • An example: In 2007, the UK government released a database with locations of bicycle accidents around the country. This information was linked by members of the public to maps, making it possible for cyclists to plan safer journeys avoiding the black spots.
  • Another example: In Australia, in January 2010, government released the National Public Toilet Map which shows the location of more than 14,000 public and private public toilet facilities with data such as opening hours, availability of baby changing rooms, and accessibility for people with disabilities. Sounds funny? Think of the possibilities: associations of disabled persons can provide a database for their members to plan journeys; mothers could access a service by mobile phone to locate the nearest baby changing room.

Read more in a good article from the Economist (4 February 2010) Data and transparency: Of governments and geeks

What are governments doing to promote this?

There are currently a number of exciting initiatives to release government data in bulk, these include:

  • United States: On 21 May 2009 the US Government launched Data.gov whose purpose is to give direct public access to machine-readable datasets generated by the Executive Branch of the US Federal Government. An initial 47 datasets are on line, of the thousands planned for release.
  • United Kingdom: Working with Tim Berners-Lee, one of the inventors of the World Wide Web, the UK government has created Data.gov.uk, a single online access point for government data, launched on 21 January 2010.
  • Australia: the data.australia.gov.au website encourages users to “make government information even more useful by mashing-up the data to create something new and exciting!”
  • New Zealand: a portal for accessing government databases is located at data.govt.nz. Recent release include a database from the food safety authority with a breakdown of the major causes of food recalls, and total number of recalls 2001 – 2009, and hospital performance data from the Ministry of Health.
  • Denmark: Danish National IT and Telecom Agency has created a meta-portal to link,Digitaliser.dk to guide users to available public data.

What about civil society initiatives?

• At the EU level the Public Geodata Campaign which formed in response to the EU’s INSPIRE Directive establishing a framework for spatial data infrastructure in Europe – activists criticise the Directive for its failure to guarantee access to geodata for European citizens and businesses;

• In the UK the Free Our Data campaign which argues that data created with taxpayers money, such as ordinance survey data (mapping), should not be sold to the public. In a victory for the campaign, UK Ordinance Survey (mapping) data will be available free of charge from April 2010;

• In New Zealand, an independent website, the Open Data Catalogue, provides a portal to local government datasets in NZ;.

• In Slovenia the speleological association won access to a database of caving information without having to pay for it; the Information Commissioner ruled that when the use of public data was for not for profit purposes, it should be free of charge.

• In the United States in December 2007 a group of 30 experts and activists in the US produced the “Open Government Data Principles”. The principles were adopted in order “to develop a more robust understanding of why open government data is essential to democracy” and to develop principles that would enable governments of the world to become “more effective, transparent, and relevant to our lives”.

It’s that easy?

Not always. There are many potential obstacles to accessing full government data. Information that is stored using software that costs money means that it’s hard to read. Information released in formats that can’t be read by computers is difficult to reuse. Information is held in proprietary formats which users have to buy. Data is subject to copyright or released under restrictive licences. These are issues which are being researched under this project and will be the subject of recommendations for future campaigns by activists from the access to information and open government data communities

What does this mean for the access to information community?

For full enjoyment of the right of access to information and the related right to freedom of expression, people need to have access to government data in formats which can be used by anyone – so preferably in open source formats – and free from copyright, licences, and other restrictions on reuse. If government data is provided to the public in formats which mean that it cannot easily be reused, processed, or have value added, then the right to information is seriously undermined.

It sounds rather technical!

Sometimes it is. As the Economist article says, this is “a geek’s dream: plenty for creative types to work on, but a bit baffling to the lay person.” This project aims to demystify open government data issues and break through the jargon, so that they can be understood by access to information activists and other human rights campaigners.

What will be done under this project?

Access Info and the Open Knowledge Foundation will identify and analyse the main initiatives related to open government data. We will analyse what this means for the right of access to information and for other developing fields such as e-government (electronic access to public services) and e-democracy (electronic participation in government decision-making and electronic voting).

Based on the research and analysis we will develop recommendations for future activities which could be carried out by the open government data, access to information, and e-government communities together.

How do I get involved?

Go to the Open Government Data Project Website and tell us about your campaigns or government initiatives in your country. The deadline for sending us information is 15 March 2010. We will then be producing a mapping report with info on the next phase of the campaign. There will be an international meeting to launch the report and discuss next steps in London on 22 April 2010.

Write to the project coordinators to tell us about your projects and to join the project:

  • Helen Darbishire, Access Info, helen [at> access-info.org
  • Jonathan Gray, Open Knowledge Foundation, at jonathan.gray <at ] okfn.org

Why is Open Government Data important?

1. Transparency. For a democratic society to function properly citizens need to know what their government is doing. In order to do that they must be able freely to access government data and information and to share that information with other citizens. Transparency, therefore, isn’t just about access it is also about sharing and reuse — often, to understand material it needs to be analyzed and visualized and this requires that the material be open so that it can be freely used and reused.

2. Citizen participation in governance. Opening up data means citizens don’t have to wait for an election to get involved in what their government is doing. Participation in decision-making,

3. Optimising the social and commercial value of public data. In a digital age data is a key resource for social and commercial activities. Everything from finding your local post office or recycling centre to building a search engine requires access to data much of which is created or held by Government. By opening up data for commercial and non-commercial use Government can promote business and social enterprise.

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The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2004 and dedicated to promoting open knowledge in all its forms. ‘Open knowledge’ is any content, information or data that people are free to use, re-use and redistribute — without any legal, technological or social restriction.

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Related posts:

  1. Open government data in Norwegen
  2. Publishing Open Government Data
  3. Danish Government launches PSI Data use competition

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