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Five things governments must consider when committing to open data

Web Foundation · November 3, 2015

François van Schalkwyk, our Research Manager for Africa and a former researcher at the University of Cape Town’s IP Law Unit, compares how South Africa and Kenya have implemented their open data commitments, and what lessons other governments can learn from their experience. This research is part of our second phase of Open Data in Developing Countries research. Download the full report here.


The movement to publish open government data has attracted increased attention through initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership,the new Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data — a coalition of over 70 organisations including the governments of the US and Mexico — and the International Open Data Charter. All of this is encouraging news, but following last week’s Open Government Partnership summit in Mexico we need to think carefully about the challenges of embedding open data practice into government.

Not enough attention has been paid to how the dynamics within governments affect the success or failure of open data initiatives. Making the commitment to pursuing an open government data policy is only the first step. Rolling out implementation and embedding “open by default” through all levels of government and across all agencies, ministries and institutions presents a number of challenges. Above all, different levels and agencies of government have varying interpretations of how open data policies should be implemented.

This review, entitled “Embedding Open Data Practice: Developing indicators on the institutionalisation of open data practice in two African governments”, examined open data policy, licensing and implementation in the cases of the governments of Kenya and South Africa to take a closer look at how open data practice takes shape on the ground, and what other governments can learn from this experience.

Interestingly, the experience of the two countries is quite opposite in critical respects. South Africa has seen hesitancy at the highest levels of government in full implementation, while agencies and ministries have been more proactive. Furthermore, the research indicated that the highest levels of the South African government are not yet ready to let go of the short-term commercial value of government data to make it freely available for longer-term economic and social gains. In contrast, the highest levels of the Kenyan government are the most committed to integrating open data into how they function, while its agencies and ministries are lagging behind in embedding open data practice.

Interviews with government employees — those who are on the front line in terms of executing data sharing policies — in both countries expressed confusion due to the absence of any guidelines on data licensing. In the case of Kenya, there was clearly strategic engagement with licensing issues, but at the same time, a patchwork of licensing systems was being applied, with a mix of both standard (e.g. Creative Commons and Copyright licenses) and bespoke data licensing. This has resulted in a licensing mismatch between the data provider and the data publisher, with administrators and technical team members having to ascribe licensing provisions for third-party users when the provisions of data-provider agencies were not clear or conflicted with open data licensing practice.

But what does this mean for governments that plan to release open data? How can they be sure an open data commitment on paper is translated into the release of relevant, reusable data that can bring about innovation and contribute to problem solving? And what can donors, researchers and multinationals gain from this study?

Our research has revealed five key takeaways for governments to consider as they start the process:

1. High-level commitments need to be followed by concrete action, tailored to specific agencies and departments. It should not be presumed that executive-level commitments such as to the Charter mean that all agencies and departments of government will conform to a new standard of openness through publishing. Open data practice will not automatically take root throughout government as a result of such commitments. To what extent do current international and national commitments consider this?

2. Change won’t happen overnight. Government departments and agencies are institutionally bound and likely to have existing sets of values that may inhibit change. As a result, change initiatives must first overcome existing norms in order to institutionalise new values of openness. Advocates for greater openness must identify and engage with individual employees in those government agencies and departments who can champion this shift in values and norms in favour of openness, making the adoption of open data practice possible.

3. While the principles are overarching, the implementation is context-specific. It is important to be mindful of all levels of government when designing change initiatives. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that any initial success in one part of government may result in differences in current open data standards between government agencies, and between government agencies and the executive, as the various parts of government come on board at different rates.

4. Bottom up may be best. It may be more effective to focus on departments and agencies when it comes to embedding open data practice in government. However, it should not be assumed that all departments or agencies will respond similarly to policies requiring them to publish open data.

5. Existing measurement systems may need adjusting. Governments should be cautious when relying on open data assessments and rankings as indicators of success. In developing country contexts, favourable assessments and rankings may be interpreted as indicative of high-level commitments to open data and of fledgling initiatives that result in a batch of open datasets being published. But they are unlikely to reflect the fundamental organisational dynamics and complexities that may hinder, or at least delay, long-term, sustainable open data practice.

Ultimately, governments want to embrace open data to encourage government employees, businesses, civil society and citizens themselves to use the data for innovative problem-solving. By thinking through these points, governments can better prepare to ensure their open data policies are implemented effectively for real impact on everyday lives.


Note: This project is part of the ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries’  (ODDC) research funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (through grant 107075). The Web Foundation is a partner of the Open Data for Development network.The “Embedding Open Data Practice” project was hosted by the IP Law Unit at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The project team was comprised of Francois van Schalkwyk, Michelle Willmers and Tobias Schonwetter.


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