Monthly Archives: June 2013

Can the G8 Open Data Charter deliver real transparency?

[Summary: cross-post of an article reflecting on the G8 Open Data Charter]

I was asked by The Conversation, a new journalism platform based around linking academic writers with professional journalists and editors, to put together a short article on the recent G8 Open Data Charter, looking at the potential for it to deliver on transparency. The result is now live over on The Conversation site, and pasted in below (under a Creative Commons license). 

Last week G8 leaders signed up to an Open Data Charter, calling for government datasets to be “open data by default”. Open data has risen up the government agenda in the UK over the last three years, with the UK positioning itself as a world leader. But what does the charter mean for G8 nations, and more broadly, will it deliver on the promise of economic impacts and improved governance through the open release of government data relating to matters such as crime figures, energy consumption and election results?

Open government data (OGD) has rapidly developed from being the niche interest of a small community of geeks to a high-profile policy idea. The basic premise of OGD is that when governments publish datasets online, in digital formats that can be easily imported into other software tools, and under legal terms that permit anyone to re-use them (including commercially), those outside government can use that data to develop new ideas, apps and businesses. It also allows citizens to better scrutinise government and hold authorities to account. But for that to happen, the kind of data released, and its quality, matter.

As the Open Knowledge Foundation outlined ahead of the G8 Summit in a release from its Open Data Census “G8 countries still have a long way to go in releasing essential information as open data”. Less than 50% of the core datasets the census lists for G8 members are fully available as open data. And because open data is one of the most common commitments made by governments when they join the wider Open Government Partnership (OGP), campaigners want a clear set of standards for what makes a good open data initiative. The G8 Open Data Charter provides an opportunity to elaborate this. In a clear nod towards the OGP, the G8 charter states: “In the spirit of openness we offer this Open Data Charter for consideration by other countries, multinational organisations and initiatives.”

But can the charter really deliver? Russia, the worst scoring G8 member on the Open Data Census, and next chair of the G8, recently withdrew from the OGP, yet signed up to the Charter. Even the UK’s commitment to “open data by default” is undermined by David Cameron’s admission that the register of company beneficial ownership announced as part of G8 pledges on tax transparency will only be accessible to government officials, rather than being the open dataset campaigners had asked for.

The ability of Russia to sign up to the Open Data Charter is down to what Robison and Yu have called the “Ambiguity of Open Government” — the dual role of open data as a tool for transparency and accountability and for economic growth. As Christian Langehenke explains, Russia is interested in the latter, but was uncomfortable with the focus placed on the former in the OGP. The G8 Charter covers both benefits of open data but is relatively vague when it comes to the release of data for improved governance.

However, if delivered, the specific commitments made in the technical annexe to opening national election and budget datasets, and to improving their quality by December 2013, would signal progress for a number of states, Russia included. Elsewhere in the G8 communiqué, states also committed to publishing open data on aid to the International Aid Transparency Initiative standard, representing new commitments from France, Italy and Japan.

The impacts of the charter may also be felt in Germany and in Canada, where open data campaigners have long been pushing for greater progress to release datasets.Canadian campaigner David Eaves highlights in particular how the charter commitment to open specific “high value” datasets goes beyond anything in existing Canadian policy. Although the pressure of next year’s G8 progress report might not provide a significant stick to spur on action, the charter does give campaigners in Canada, Germany other other G8 nations a new lever in pushing for greater publication of data from their governments.

Delivering improved governance and economic growth will not come from the release of data alone. The charter offers some recognition of this, committing states to “work to increase open data literacy” and “encourage innovative uses of our data through the organisation of challenges, prizes or mentoring”. However, it stops short of considering other mechanisms needed to unlock the democratic and governance reform potential of open data. At best it frames data on public services as enabling citizens to “make better informed choices about the services they receive”, encapsulating a notion of citizen as consumer (a framing Jo Bates refers to the as the co-option of open data agendas), rather than committing to build mechanisms for citizens to engage with the policy process, and thus achieve accountability, on the basis of the data that is made available.

The charter marks the continued rise of open data to becoming a key component of modern governance. Yet, the publication of open data alone stops short of the wider institutional reforms needed to deliver modernised and accountable governance. Whether the charter can secure solid open data foundations on which these wider reforms can be built is something only time will tell.

Geneva E-Participation Day: Open Data and International Organisations

Meeting venue (I think...)[Summary: notes for a talk on open data and International Organisations]

In just over a weeks time I’l be heading for Geneva to take part in Diplo Foundation’s E-Participation Day: towards a more open UN?’ event. In the past I’ve worked with Diplo on remote participation, using the web to support live online participation in face-to-face meetings such as the Internet Governance Forum. This time I’ll be talking open data – exploring the ways in which changing regimes around data stand to impact International Organisations. This blog post was written for the Diplo blog as an introduction to some of the themes I might explore. 

The event will, of course, have remote participation – so you can register to join in-person or online for free here.

E-participation and remote hubs have the potential to open up dialogue and decision making. But after the conferences have been closed, and the declarations made, it is data that increasingly shapes the outcome of international processes. Whether it’s the numbers counted up to check on progress towards the millennium development goals, GDP percentage pledges on aid spending, or climate change targets, the outcomes of international co-operation frequently depend on the development and maintenance of datasets.

The adage that ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ has relevance both for International Organisations and for citizens. The better the flows of data International Organisations can secure access to, the greater their theoretical capacity for co-ordination of complex systems. And the greater the flows of information from the internal workings of International Organisations that citizens, states and pressures groups can access, the greater their theoretical capacity to both scrutinise decisions and to get involved in decision making and implementation. I say theoretical capacity, because the picture is rarely that straightforward in practice. Yet, that complexity aside for a moment, over the last few years the idea has been gaining ground that, in some states has led to not only a greater flow of data, but has driven a veritable flood – with hundreds and thousands of government datasets placed online for anyone to access and re-use. That idea is open data.

Open Data is a simple concept. Organisations holding datasets should place them online, in machine-readable formats, and under licenses that let anyone re-use them. Advocates explain that this brings a myriad of benefits. For example, rather than finance data being locked up in internal finance systems, only available to auditors, open data on budgets and spending can be published on the web for anyone to download and explore in their spreadsheet software, or to let third parties generate visualisations that show citizens where their money is being spent, and to help independent analysts look across datasets for possible inefficiency, fraud or corruption. Or instead of the location of schools or health centres being kept on internal systems, the data can be published to allow innovators to present it to citizens in new and more accessible ways. And in crisis situations, instead of co-ordinators spending days collecting data from agencies in the field and re-keying the data into central databases, if all the organisations involved were to publish open data in common formats, there is the possibility of it being aggregated together, building up a clearer picture of what is going on. One of the highest profile existing open data initiatives in the development field is the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) which now has standardised open data from 100s or donors, providing the foundation for a timely view of who is doing what in aid.

Open data ideas have been spreading rapidly across the world, with many states establishing national Open Government Data (OGD) initiatives, and International Organisations from The World Bank, to UN DESA, the OECD and the Open Government Partnership all developing conversations and projects around open data. When the G8 meet next week in Northern-Ireland they are expected to launch an ‘Open Data Charter’ setting out principles for high quality open data, and committing states to publish certain datasets. Right now it remains to be seen whether open data will feature anywhere else in the  in the G8 action plans, although there is clearly space for open data ideas and practices to be deployed in securing greater tax transparency, or supporting the ongoing monitoring of other commitments. In the case of the post-2105 process, a number of organisations have been advocating for an access to information focus, seeking to ensure citizens have access to open data that they can use to monitor government actions and hold governments to account on delivering on commitments.

However – as Robinson and Yu have highlighted – there can be an ambiguity of open government data: more open data does not necessarily mean more open organisations. The call for ‘raw data now’ has led to much open data emerging simply as an outbound communication, without routes for engagement or feedback, and no change in existing organisational practices. Rather than being treated as a reform that can enable greater organisational collaboration and co-ordination, many open datasets have just been ‘dumped’ on the web. In the same way that remote participation is often a bolt-on to meetings, without the deeper changes in process needed to make for equal participation for remote delegates, at best much open data only offers actors outside of institutions a partial window onto their operations, and at worst, the data itself remains opaque: stripped of context and meaning. Getting open data right for both transparency, and for transforming international collaboration needs more than just technology. 

As I explored with Jovan Kurbalija of Diplo in a recent webinar, there are big challenges ahead if open data is to work as an asset for development: from balancing tensions between standardisation and local flexibility, developing true multi-stakeholder governance of important data flows, and getting the incentives for collaboration right. However, now is the time to be engaging with these challenges – within a window of energy and optimism, and before network effects lock in paradoxically ‘closed’ systems of open data. I hope the dialogue at the Geneva E-Participation day will offer a small chance to broaden open data understanding and conversations in a way that can contribute to such engagement.