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Open Data: Seeing Well Beyond the Portals

José M. Alonso · September 21, 2011

The more I listen to people talk about open data, the more wrong assumptions I hear. I’ve been involved in the development and deployment of several open data initiatives for local, regional, national governments and I’m fighting these assumptions more frequently that I would have liked. I’m writing this post while in New York City upon attending the Open Government Partnership launch where governments and civil society organizations have met to also discuss the way forward, and I thought it was a good time to put the most important arguments together to point people at them on this important occasion.

Let me say it clearly, open data is not about:

  • technology alone,
  • building a portal,
  • transparency for the sake of transparency.

Back in mid 2009 when the U.S. was launched, some governments started to look at the portal and Open Government Initative as examples of innovative, engaging government. Many got interested in learning more about why that was started, how it was working and how they could replicate the successes.

I met a number of people by the time (some of them became clients later in time) where the discussion went along this line: “looks cool, innovative, Obama is leading which is good, would you help us build our portal?” My answer was always: “no”.  Building an open data portal should never ever be and end in itself and it’s not what open data is about. True that all initiatives have built one, but this should be just one of the deliverables of an initiative and never, ever and end in itself.

Experience tells me technology means probably less than 10% of an open data initiative and I’m more worried than ever before that a majority of the discussions are about technology alone and the other 90% gets ignored.

Open data is an important pillar of open government initiatives and those are about changing the way government and its constituencies relate and communicate. Would that goal be solved with technology alone? Of course, not.

There are various dimensions that should be taken into account when considering starting an open data initiative: political, legal, organizative, technical, social and economic.

Questions that people should be asking themselves should include: “what’s the best way to build the portal so people can more easily get access to and reuse information?” but should go well beyond that.

Unfortunately, dimensions beyond the technical one are often ignored, and the main reason is that they mean deep, important government reform. It’s much easier to build a sexy portal with downloadable datasets and applications and visualizations people can play with (but that are not always useful at all) than to think about legislation needs to support the initiative, capacity building requirements in the public administration, allocation of budget in these crisis times to make it a sustainable effort and similar topics.

There’s one other important issue that I’d like to address: transparency and the often overlooked benefits of open data.
I’m talking to many that believe that an open data initiative will deliver transparency and accountability . Well, it may or may not. It will all depend on the approach, as I said above. For this to become a reality, I love the concept of Director Nigel Shadbolt: “publish data that matters”. This is certainly a must and not only for transparency but for achieving the greater benefits of open data. Those are too often overlooked and are extremely important:

  • Increased internal government efficiency and effectiveness
  • Increased citizen participation and inclusion through extended offers of services closer to people’s needs
  • Increased number of services to people due to an increased base of potential service providers
  • New business opportunities and jobs for application and service developers
  • New synergies between government, public administration and civil society organizations
  • New innovative uses of open data that can help spur innovation and development in the IT sector

The main goal of the Web Foundation in this area is to build local sustainable open data ecosystems with a clear focus on low and middle income countries, and if we want to succeed we cannot avoid those important discussions, we cannot overlook that 90%, and we will not. We want governments to achieve the promises and benefits of open data and we will we also need to involve all relevant actors (from the top level political layer to the public officials and civil society organizations, academia, media, private businesses and citizenries at large) for the initiatives to be successful over time.

The launch of the Open Government Partnership is an important milestone but governments are yet to commit the resources needed to fulfill the commitments and they need to understand the whole picture if they are to succeed. I’m glad that Web Foundation Directors Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt had the chance to participate in plenary sessions and made many valid points along the lines of the post. I hope the more we talk to the various stakeholders about this, the more they get it. It won’t be easy, but we stand ready to help.


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