High value datasets: an exploration

[Summary: an argument for the importance of involving civil society, and thinking broad when exploring the concept of high value data (with lots of links to past research and the like smuggled in)]

On 26th June this year the European Parliament and Council published an update to the Public Sector Information (PSI) directive, now recast as Directive 2019/1024 “on open data and the re-use of public sector information.  The new text makes a number of important changes, including bringing data held by publicly controlled companies in utility and transport sectors into the scope of the directive, extending coverage of research data, and seeking to limit the granting of exclusive private sector rights to data created during public tasks, and increase the transparency when such rights are granted.

However, one of the most significant changes of all is the inclusion of Article 14 on High Value Datasets which gives the Commission power to adopt an implementing act “laying down a list of specific high-value datasets” that member states will be obliged to publish under open licenses, and, in some cases, using certain APIs and standards. The implementing acts will have the power to set out those standards. This presents a major opportunity to shape the open data ecosystem of Europe for decades to come.

The EU Commission have already issued a tender for a consultant to support them in defining a ‘List of High-value Datasets to be made Available by the Member States under the PSI-Directive’, and work looks set to advance at pace, particularly as the window granted by the directive to the Commission to set out a list of high value datasets is time-limited.

A few weeks back, a number of open data researchers and campaigners had a quick call to discuss ways to make sure past research, and civil society voices, inform the work that goes forward. As part of that, I agreed to draft a short(ish) post exploring the concept of high value data, and looking at some of the issues that might need to be addressed in the coming months. I’d hoped to co-draft this with colleagues, but with summer holidays and travel having intervened, am instead posting a sole authored post, with an invite to others to add/dispute/critique etc. 

Notably, whilst it appears few (if any) open-data related civil society organisations are in a position to lead a response to the current EC tender, the civil society open data networks built over the last decade in Europe have a lot to offer in identifying, exploring and quantifying the potential social value of specific open datasets.

What counts as high value?

The Commission’s tender points towards a desire for a single list of datasets that can be said to exist in some form in each member state. The directive restricts the scope of this list to six domains: geospatial, earth observation and environment, meteorological, statistical, company and company ownership, and mobility-related datasets. It also appears to anticipate that data standards will only be prescribed for some kinds of data: highlighting a distinction between data that may be high value simply by virtue of publication, and data which is high-value by virtue of it’s interoperability between states.

In the new directive, the definition of ‘high value datasets’ is put as:

“documents the re-use of which is associated with important benefits for society, the environment and the economy, in particular because of their suitability for the creation of value-added services, applications and new, high-quality and decent jobs, and of the number of potential beneficiaries of the value-added services and applications based on those datasets;” (§2.10)

Although the ordering of society, environment and economy is welcome, there are subtle but important differences from the definition advanced in a 2014 paper from W3C and PwC for the European Commission which described a number of factors for determining whether there was high value to making a dataset open (and standardising it in some ways). It focussed attention on whether publication of a dataset:

  • Contributes to transparency
  • Helps governments meet legal obligations
  • Relates to a public task
  • Realises cost reductions; and
  • Has some value to a large audience, or substantial value to a smaller audience.

Although the recent tender talks of identifying “socio-economic” benefits of datasets, overall it adopts a strongly economic frame, seeking quantification of these and asking in particular for evaluation of “potential for AI applications of the identified datasets;”. (This particular framing of open data as a raw material input for AI is something I explored in the recent State of Open Data book, where the privacy chapter also picked up on a brief exploration how AI applications may also create new privacy risks for release of certain datasets.)  But to keep wider political and social uses of open data in view, and to recognise that quantification of benefits is not a simple process of adding up the revenue of firms that use that data, any comprehensive method to explore high value datasets will need to consider a range of issues, including that:

  • Value is produced in a range of different ways
  • Not all future value can be identified from looking at existing data use cases
  • Value may result from network effects
  • Realising value takes more than data
  • Value is a two-sided calculation; and
  • The distribution of value matters as well as the total amount

I dig into each of these below.

Value is produced in different ways

A ‘raw material’ theory of change still pervades many discussions of open data, in spite of the growing evidence base about the many different ways that opening up access to data generates value. In ‘raw material’ theory, open data is an input, taken in by firms, processed, and output as part of new products and services. The value of the data can then be measured in the ‘value add’ captured from sales of the resulting product or service. Yet, this only captures a small part of the value that mandating certain datasets be made open can generate. Other mechanisms at play can include:

  • Risk reduction. Take, for example, beneficial ownership data. Quite asides from the revenue generated by ‘Know Your Customer (KYC)’ brokers who might build services off the back of public registers of beneficial ownership, consider the savings to government and firms from not being exposed to dodgy shell-companies, and the consumer surplus generated by supporting a clamp down on illicit financial flows into the housing market by supporting more effective cross-border anti-money laundering investigations. OpenOwnership are planning research later this year to dig more into how firms are using, or could use, beneficial ownership transparency data including to manage their exposure to risk. Any quantification needs to take into account not only value gained, but also value ‘not lost’ because a dataset is made open.
  • Internal efficiency and innovation. When data is made open, and particularly when standards are adopted, it often triggers a reconfiguration of data practices inside the data (c.f. Goëta & Davies), with the potential for this to support more efficient working, and enable innovation through collaboration between government, civil society and enterprise. For example, the open publication of contracting data, particularly with the adoption of common data standards, has enabled a number of governments to introduce new analytical tools, finding ways to get a better deal on the products and services they buy. Again, this value for money for the taxpayer may be missed by a simple ‘raw material’ theory.
  • Political and rights impacts. The 2014 W3C/PWC paper I cited earlier talks about identifying datasets with “some value to a large audience, or substantial value to a smaller audience.”. There may also be datasets that have low likelihood of causing impact, but high impact (at least for those affected) when they do. Take, for example, statistics on school admissions. When I first looked at use of open data back in 2009, I was struck by the case of an individual gaining confidence from the fact that statistics on school admission appeals were available (E7) when constructing an appeal case against a school’s refusal to admit their own child. The open availability of this data (not necessarily standardised or aggregated) had substantial value to empowering a citizen in securing their rights. Similarly, there are datasets that are important for communities to secure their rights (e.g. air quality data), or to take political action to either enforce existing policy (e.g. air quality limits), or to change policy (e.g. secure new air quality action zones). No only is such value difficult to quantify, but whether or not certain data generates value will vary between countries in accordance with local policies and political issues. The definition of EU-wide ‘high value datasets’ should not crowd out the possibility or process of defining data that is high-value in particular country. That said, there may at least be scope to look at datasets in the study categories that have substantial potential value in relation to EU social and environmental policy priorities.

Beyond the mechanisms above, there may also be datasets where we find a high intrinsic value in the transparency their publication brings, even without a clear evidence base that can quantifies their impact. In these cases, we might also talk of the normative value of openness, and consider which datasets deserve a place on the high-value list because we take the openness of this data to be foundational to the kind of societies we want to live in, just as we may take certain freedoms of speech and movement as foundational to the kind of Europe we want to see created.

Not all value can be found from prior examples

The tender cites projects like the Open Data Barometer (which I was involved in developing the methodology for) as potential inspirations for the design of approaches to assess “datasets that should belong to the list of high value datasets”. The primary place to look for that inspiration is not in the published stats, but in the underlying qualitative data which includes raw reports of cases of political, social and economic impact from open data. This data (available for a number of past editions of the Barometer) remains an under-explored source of potential impact cases that could be used to identify how data has been used in particular countries and settings. Equally, projects like the State of Open Data can be used to find inspiration on where data has been used to generate social value: the chapter on Transport is as case-in-point, looking at how comprehensive data on transport can support applications improving the mobility of people with specific needs.

However, many potential uses and impacts of open data are still to be realised, because the data they might work with has not heretofore been accessible. Looking only at existing cases of use and impact is likely to miss such cases. This is where dialogue with civil society becomes vitally important. Campaigners, analysts and advocates may have ideas for the projects that could exist if only particular data was available. In some cases, there will be a hint at what is possible from academic projects that have gained access to particular government datasets, or from pilot projects where limited data was temporarily shared – but in other cases, understanding potential value will require a more imaginative and forward-looking and consultative process. Given the upcoming study may set the list of high value datasets for decades to come – it’s important that the agenda is not be solely determined by prior publication precedent.

For some datasets, certain value comes from network effects

If one country provides an open register of corporate ownership, the value this has for anti-corruption purposes only goes so far. Corruption is a networked game, and without being able to following corporate chains across borders, the value of a single register may be limited. The value of corporate disclosures in one jurisdiction increase the more other jurisdictions provide such data. The general principle here, that certain data gains value through network effects, raises some important issues for the quantification of value, and will help point towards those datasets where standardisation is particularly important. Being able to show, for example, that the majority of the value of public transit data comes from domestic use (and so interoperability is less important), but the majority of value of, say, carbon emission or climate change mitigation financing data, comes from cross-border use, will be important to support prioritisation of datasets.

Value generation takes more than data

Another challenge of of the ‘raw material’ theory of change is that it often fails to consider (a) the underlying quality (not only format standardisation) of source data, and (b) the complementary policies and resources that enable use. For example, air quality data from low-quality or uncalibrated particulate sensors may be less valuable than data from calibrated and high quality sensors, particularly when national policy may set out criteria for the kinds of data that can be used in advancing claims for additional environmental protections in high-pollution areas. Understanding this interaction of ‘local data’ and the governance contexts where it is used is important in understanding how far, and under what conditions, one may extrapolate from value identified in one context, to potential value to be realised in another. This calls for methods that can go beyond naming datasets, to being able to describe features (not just formats) that are important for them to have. 

Within the Web Foundation hosted Open Data Research Network a few years back we spent considerable time refining a framework for thinking about all the aspects that go into securing impact (and value) from open data, and work by GovLab has also identified factors that have been important to the success of initiatives using open data. Beyond this, numerous dataset-specific frameworks for understanding what quality looks like may exist. Whilst recommending dataset-by-dataset measures to enhance the value realised from particular open datasets may be beyond the scope of the European Commission’s current study – when researching and extrapolating from past value generation in different contexts it is important to look at the other complementary factors that may have contributed that value realising alongside the simple availability of data.

Value is a two-sided calculation

It can be temping to quantify the value of a dataset simply by taking all the ‘positive’ value it might generate, and adding it up. But, a true quantification calculation also needs to consider potential negative impacts. In some cases, this could be positive economic value set against some social or ecological dis-benefit. For example, consider the release of some data that might increase use of carbon-intensive air and road transport. While this  could generate quantifiable revenue for haulage and airline firms, it might undermine efforts to tackle climate change, destroying long-term value. Or in other cases, there may be data that provides social benefit (e.g. through the release of consumer protection related data) but that disrupts an existing industry in ways that reduce private sector revenues. 

Recognising the power of data, involves recognising that power can be used in both positive and negative ways. A complete balance sheet needs to consider the plus and the minus. This is another key point where dialogue with civil society will be vital – and not only with open data advocates, but with those who can help consider the potential harms of certain data being more open. 

Distribution of value matters

Last but not least, when considering public investment in ‘high value’ datasets, it is important to consider who captures that value. I’ve already hinted at the fact that value might be captured as government surplus, consumer surplus or producer (private sector) surplus – but there are also relevant question to ask about which countries or industries may be best placed to capture value from cross-border interoperable datasets.

When we see data as infrastructure, then it can help us consider the potential to both provide infrastructure that is open to all and generative of innovation, but also to design policies that ensure those capturing value from the infrastructure are contributing to its maintenance.

In summary

Work on methodologies to identify high value datasets in Europe should not start from scratch, and stand to benefit substantially from engaging with open data communities across the region. There is a risk that a narrow conceptualisation and quantification of ‘high value’ will fail to capture the true value of openness, and to consider the contexts of data production and use. However, there is a wealth of research from the last decade (including some linked in this post, and cited in State of Open Data) to build upon, and I’m hopeful that whichever consultant or consortium takes on the EC’s commissioned study, they will take as broad a view as possible within the practical constraints of their project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.