Category Archives: Digital Government

A Data Sharing Disclosure Standard?

DataSharing[Summary: Iterations on a proposal for a public register of government data sharing arrangements, setting out options for a Data Sharing Disclosure Standard to be used whenever government shares personal data. Draft for interactive comments here (and PDF for those in govt without access to Google Docs )

At the instigation of the UK Cabinet Office, an open policy making process is currently underway to propose new arrangements for data sharing in government. Data sharing arrangements are distinct from open data, as they may involve the limited exchange of personal and private data between government departments, or outside of government, with specific purpose of data use in mind.

The idea that new measures are needed is based on a perception that many opportunities to make better use of data for research, addressing debt and fraud, or tailoring the design of public services, are missed because either because of legal or practical barriers to data moving being exchanged or joined up between government departments. Some departments in particular, such as HMRC, require explicit legal permissions to share data, where in other department and public bodies, a range of existing ‘legal gateways’ and powers support exchange of data.

I’ve been following the process from afar, but on Monday last week I had the chance to attend one of the open full-day workshops that Involve are facilitating as part of the open policy making process. This brought together representatives of a range of public bodies, including central government departments and local authorities, with members of the Cabinet Office team leading on data sharing reforms, and a small number of civil society organisations and individuals. Monday’s discussion were centered on the introduction of new ‘permissive powers’ for data sharing to support tailored public services. For example, powers that would make it easier for local government to request and obtain HMRC data on 16 – 19 year olds in order to identify which young people in their area were already in employment or training, and so to target their resources on contacting those young people outside employment or training who they have a statutory obligation to support.

The exact wording of such a power, and the safeguards that need to be in place to ensure it is neither too broad, nor open to abuse, are being developed through the open policy making process. One safeguard I believe is important comes from introducing greater transparency into government data sharing arrangements.

A few months back, working with Reuben Binns, I put together a short note on a possible model for an ‘Open Register of Data Sharing‘. In Monday’s open policy making meeting, the topic of transparency as an important aspect of tailored public service data sharing came up, and provided an opportunity to discuss many of the ideas that the draft proposal had contained. Through the discussions, however, it became clear that there were a number of extra considerations needed to develop the proposal further, in particular:

  • Noting that public disclosure of planned data sharing was not only beneficial for transparency and scrutiny, but also for efficiency, coordination and consistency of data sharing: by allowing public bodies to pool data sharing arrangements, and to easily replicate approved shares, rather than starting from scratch with every plan and business case.
  • Recognising the concerns of local authorities and other public bodies about a centralised register, and the need to accommodate shares that might take place between public bodies at a local level only, without involvement of central government.
  • Recognising the need for both human and machine-readable information on data sharing arrangements, so that groups with a specific interest in particular data (e.g. associations looking out for the rights of homeless people) could track proposed or enacted arrangements without needing substantial technical know-how.
  • Recognising the importance of documents like Privacy Impact Assessments and Business Cases, but also noting that mandatory publication of these during their drafting could distort the drafting process (with the risk they become more PR documents making the case for a share, than genuine critical assessments), suggesting a mix of proactive and reactive transparency may be needed in practice.

As a result of the discussions with local authorities, government departments and others, I took away a number of ideas about how the proposal could be refined, and so this Friday, at the University of Southampton Web and Internet Science group annual gathering and weekend of projects (known locally as WAISFest) I worked in a stream on personal data, and spend a morning updating the proposals. The result is a reframed draft that, rather than focusing on the Register, focuses on a Data Sharing Disclosure Standard emphasising the key information that needs to be disclosed about each data share, and discussing when disclosure should take place, whilst leaving open a range of options for how this might be technically implemented.

You can find the updated document here, as a Google Doc open to comments. I would really welcome comments and suggestion for how this could be refined further over the coming weeks. If you do leave a comment and want to be credited / want to join in future discussion of this proposal, please also include your name / contact details.

The Gazette provides semantically enriched public notices: readable by humans and machines.

The Gazette provides semantically enriched public notices: readable by humans and machines.

A couple of things of particular note in the draft:

  • It is useful to identify (a) data controllers; (b) dataset; (c) legislation authorising data shares. Right now the Register of Data Controllers seems to provide a good resource for (a), and thanks to recent efforts at building out the digital information infrastructure of the UK, it turns out there are often good URLs that can be used as identifiers for datasets ( lists unpublished datasets from many central government departments) and legislation (through the data-all-the-way down approach of
  • It considers how the Gazette might be used as a publication route for Data Sharing Disclosures. The Gazette is an official paper of record, established since 1665 but recently re-envisioned with a semantic publishing platform. Using such a route to publish notices of data sharing has the advantage that it combines the long-term archival of information in a robust source, with making enriched openly licensed data available for re-use. This potentially offers a more robust route to disclosures, in which the data version is a progressive enhancement on top of an information disclosure.
  • Based on feedback from Javier Ruiz, it highlights the importance of flagging when shared data is going to be processed using algorithms that will determine individuals eligibility for services/trigger interventions affecting citizens, and raises of the question of whether the algorithms themselves should be disclosed as a mater of course.

I’ll be sharing a copy of the draft with the Data Sharing open policy process mailing list, and with the Cabinet Office team working on the data sharing brief. They are working to draft an updated paper on policy options by early September, with a view to a possible White Paper – so comments over the next few weeks are particularly valued.

New Paper – Mixed incentives: Adopting ICT innovations for transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption


[Summary: critical questions to ask when planning, funding or working on ICTs for transparency and accountability]

Last year I posted some drafts of a paper I’ve been writing with Silvana Fumega at the invitation of the U4 Anti-Corruption Center, looking at the incentives for, and dynamics of, adoption of ICTs as anti-corruption tools. Last week the final paper was published in the U4 Issue series, and you can find it for download here.

In the final iteration of the paper we have sought to capture the core of the analysis in the form of a series of critical questions that funders, planners and implementers of anti-corruption ICTs can ask. These are included in the executive summary below, and elaborated more in the full paper.

Adopting ICT innovations for transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption – Executive Summary

Initiatives facilitated by information and communication technology (ICT) are playing an increasingly central role in discourses of transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption. Both advocacy and funding are being mobilised to encourage governments to adopt new technologies aimed at combating corruption. Advocates and funders need to ask critical questions about how innovations from one setting might be transferred to another, assessing how ICTs affect the flow of information, how incentives for their adoption shape implementation, and how citizen engagement and the local context affect the potential impacts of their use.

ICTs can be applied to anti-corruption efforts in many different ways. These technologies change the flow of information between governments and citizens, as well as between different actors within governments and within civil society. E?government ICTs often seek to address corruption by automating processes and restricting discretion of officials. However, many contemporary uses of ICTs place more emphasis on the concept of transparency as a key mechanism to address corruption. Here, a distinction can be made between technologies that support “upward transparency,” where the state gains greater ability to observe and hear from its citizens, or higher-up actors in the state gain greater ability to observe their subordinates, and “downward transparency,” in which “the ‘ruled’ can observe the conduct, behaviour, and/or ‘results’ of their ‘rulers’” (Heald 2006). Streamlined systems that citizens can use to report issues to government fall into the former category, while transparency portals and open data portals are examples of the latter. Transparency alone can only be a starting point for addressing corruption, however: change requires individuals, groups, and institutions who can access and respond to the information.

In any particular application of technology with anti-corruption potential, it is important to ask:

  • What is the direction of the information flow: from whom and to whom?
  • Who controls the flow of information, and at what stages?
  • Who needs to act on the information in order to address corruption?

Different incentives can drive government adoption of ICTs. The current wave of interest in ICT for anti-corruption is relatively new, and limited evidence exists to quantify the benefits that particular technologies can bring in a given context. However, this is not limiting enthusiasm for the idea that governments, particularly developing country governments, can adopt new technologies as part of open government and anti-corruption efforts. Many technologies are “sold” on the basis of multiple promised benefits, and governments respond to a range of different incentives. For example, governments may use ICTs to:

  • Improve information flow and government efficiency, creating more responsive public institutions, supporting coordination.
  • Provide open access to data to enable innovation and economic growth, responding to claims about the economic value of open data and its role as a resource for private enterprise.
  • Address principal-agent problems, allowing progressive and reformist actors within the state to better manage and regulate other parts of the state by detecting and addressing corruption through upward and downward transparency.
  • Respond to international pressure, following the trends in global conversations and pressure from donors and businesses, as well as the availability of funding for pilots and projects.
  • Respond to bottom-up pressure, both from established civil society and from an emerging global network of technology-focussed civil society actors. Governments may do this either as genuine engagement or to “domesticate” what might otherwise be seen as disruptive innovations.

In supporting ICTs for anti-corruption, advocates and donors should consider several key questions related to incentives:

  • What are the stated motivations of government for engaging with this ICT?
  • What other incentives and motivations may be underlying interest in this ICT?
  • Which incentives are strongest? Are any of the incentives in conflict?
  • Which incentives are important to securing anti-corruption outcomes from this ICT?
  • Who may be motivated to oppose or inhibit the anti-corruption applications of this ICT?

The impact of ICTs for anti-corruption is shaped by citizen engagement in a local context. Whether aimed at upward or downward transparency, the successful anti-corruption application of an ICT relies upon citizen engagement. Many factors affect which citizens can engage through technology to share reports with government or act upon information provided by government. ICTs that worked in one context might not achieve the same results in a different setting (McGee and Gaventa 2010). The following questions draw attention to key aspects of context:

  • Who has access to the relevant technologies? What barriers of connectivity, literacy, language, or culture might prevent a certain part of the population from engaging with an ICT innovation?
  • What alternative channels (SMS, offline outreach) might be required to increase the reach of this innovation?
  • How will the initiative close the feedback loop? Will citizens see visible outcomes over the short or long term that build rather than undermine trust?
  • Who are the potential intermediary groups and centralised users for ICTs that provide upward or downward transparency? Are both technical and social intermediaries present? Are they able to work together?

Towards sustainable and effective anti-corruption use of ICTs. As Strand (2010) argues, “While ICT is not a magic bullet when it comes to ensuring greater transparency and less corruption . . . it has a significant role to play as a tool in a number of important areas.” Although taking advantage of the multiple potential benefits of open data, transparency portals, or digitised communication with government can make it easier to start a project, funders and advocates should consider the incentives for ICT adoption and their likely impact on how the technology will be applied in practice. Each of the questions above is important to understanding the role a particular technology might play and the factors that affect how it is implemented and utilised in a particular country.


You can read the full paper here.

ICTs and Anti-Corruption: Uptake, use and impacts

[Summary: The forth section of our draft paper on ICTs and Anti-corruption looks at the evidence on uptake, use and impacts. We'd love your comments...

I’m currently posting draft sections of a report on ICTs and anti-corruption to invite comments before the final paper is written up in a few weeks time. If you’ve any comments on the draft, please do add them into the Google Doc draft or leave a note below. This forth and final section looks at uptake of anti-corruption ICTs in developing country contexts and issues concerning who uses these technologies.


Government incentives aside, it is important for advocates and funders of ICT-enabled anti-corruption activity to consider the factors that may affect the impact of these interventions in developing countries. As previously outlined, ICT-based reforms tend to focus on either transactions or transparency. Both rely upon the engagement of citizens. Citizens are crucial either to access and respond to information that is made available through transparency, or to originate and communicate to government their own experience through transactional channels. Therefore, it is important to ask what incentives and barriers citizens have for such engagement, and to explore what kinds of citizen engagement are important to the success of certain ICTs.



Much of the limited evidence we do have on citizen engagement with transparency and accountability ICTs comes from cases where those tools/platforms have been deployed by civil society. Avila et. al. divide interventions into two kinds: push and pull transparency (Avila, Feigenblatt, Heacock, & Heller, 2011). In the former, citizens speak up, and communicate their experience of an issue; in the later, citizens ‘pull’ down information from an available pool and use it to act in some way. In practice, many interventions require both: citizens to access information, and citizens to act through exercising their voice and pushing issues onto the agenda (Avila, R. et al, 2009). An ICT intervention might be designed around the idea of citizens acting individually (e.g. in transactional citizen reporting channels), or around the idea of citizens acting collectively, as in the idea of that, on identifying corrupt activity through information on a transparency portal, or an open data catalogue, citizens speak out politically on the need for change. Citizen action in these cases may be direct, or mediated. In mediated cases, technical intermediaries, sometimes termed “infomediaries”, play a particularly important role in theories of change around how open data may be used by citizens (Steinberg, 2011).



The effort, as well as the skills, that each of these different models (push or pull; individual or collective action) demand from the citizens varies significantly across ICT interventions. Users can be passive consumers of information, accumulating it to use at some future point, such as when voting. Or, as Fung et al (2010) outline, they can be requested to act on information that they receive, drawing on a range of resources to make a change in their behaviour as a result of transparent information, for example in citizens’ reporting channel (from government or civil society) or in participatory budget exercises.


Differences emerge not only between the users of different models, also amongst users in each of them. The skills, resources and capacity to influence others are not the same between mass users (general public) and organized entities (such as NGOs, journalist, companies and public officials). According to Fung et. al. (2011) the interventions that aim to increase political accountability (understood as the demand over the “behaviour of political officials whose policies have more generalized effects”) generally rely upon centralized users (media, NGOs, among others) while the general public (decentralized actors) tend to be more inclined towards interventions designed to demand service accountability (ibid.). This distinction seems to present some sort of correlation with the assumption that people values information that is directly relevant to their well-being and they are interested in a few select political issues that are directly relevant to their lives.


Besides the incentives behind each user, there certainly is a disparity in terms of resources to disseminate the information and also regarding the capacity to channel demands through the appropriate institutional channels. Following Fung et. al. “political campaigns and candidates, for example, may be far more sensitive and responsive to the criticisms that journalists make than to the more diffuse, harder to discern views of mass voters” (Fung et al., 2011).


In terms of the characteristics of the mass users, there is limited analysis on the demographics of ICT-led transparency initiatives user. Some reports argue that poorer demographics are the most affected by corruption (Knox, 2009). Despite that, the analysis that does exist suggests that more educated, higher income and more technologically comfortable demographics of the population are more incline to engage with ICT-led interventions (Kuriyan, Bailur, Gigler, & Park, 2012). It is perhaps not surprising as these groups are the most likely to be online and to engage with Internet applications more frequently, as well as more likely to participate in politics. However, the implications of this for the design of technology for anti-corruption projects is offer an afterthought, rather than a key design consideration from the start. The fact that ICT-based innovations may primarily reach relatively predictable (and relatively affluent) proportions of the population (at least in the short term) may play a role in making such approaches appealing to governments who believe they can manage any input they may receive within existing institutional processes.



According to figures on Internet penetration, in 2013 there is still a big gap in terms of users between developing and developed countries (ITU, 2013). These figures show a penetration of 70% approximately for developed countries while only a 30% for the developing ones.


Traditionally the digital divide has had a correlation with the difficulties to access (and use[1]) Internet connexion. Those difficulties could be related to access to old computers, high price connexions, among others. Some analysts (Gurstein, 2011) argue that some of these initiatives (open data initiatives, in particular) might present a new divide among the population. Together with the digital divide, the rapid development in ICT tools seems to add new barriers to entry.


Current discourses on ICT tools for transparency and accountability suggest (implicitly or sometimes explicitly) that with these new tools everybody can make use of the data and information provided as well as act upon them. However, there are numerous barriers that are not related only to the access to Internet or others technologies (digital divide) but also, as Gurstein mentioned, to the educational resources/skills which would allow for the effective use of those resources.

“…the lack of these foundational requirements means that the exciting new outcomes available from open data are available only to those who are already reasonably well provided for technologically and with other resources.” (Gurstein, 2011)


For the community of potential users to be able to interact with the project, they need the necessary skills to use digital technology as well as to manage, and assess information regarding public interest issues. That is, it is important to count with an ICT literate community. This is relevant for government project as well as civil society initiatives.

 “..the release of public sector information without a commensurate increase in data literacy will do little to empower the average citizen.” (Gigler, Custer, & Rahemtulla, 2011)


Furthermore, in developing contexts, not only ICT literacy is a key element for the success of a project but also language differences as well as the material factors such as access to low cost technologies (digital divide not only in terms of access to technology but also regarding the skills to effectively make use of those tools). As explained in the Ugandan context:

“A major constraint mentioned […] was funding shortages. This was followed by the high cost of accessing the tools, the capability to use (language and literacy) the mainly Internet or mobile based platforms.” (Kalemera, Nalwoga, & Wakabi, 2012)


In that sense, according to Courtney Tolmie, director at the Research for Development Institute, websites that allow reporting in the local languages, and that also receive high levels of publicity, and accept SMS texting (a much more accessible technology in many developing countries), should prove more successful (Dawson, 2012).


Even in the absence of some of the above-mentioned barriers, such as an ICT literacy community with an easy access to technology, there is not a guarantee of a robust citizen engagement.

“… increasing the availability of Internet based information does not necessarily mean that citizens will use it to demand greater accountability. The proportion of citizens who are prepared to be consistently engaged in the process of governance is relatively small. Even where there are high rates of Internet penetration, experience has shown that creating a good website or online portal does not guarantee its use” (Bhatnagar, 2003)



All of the above-mentioned factors can provide insights in terms of user trends and pre-conditions for that uptake. However, when considering technological interventions it is important to consider the legal, policy and social context in which technology is introduced. In that sense, low engagement could also be a result of distrust or poor relationships with the intended users of disclosed information (government). Following Finnegan (2012) “Distrust, animosity and secrecy are commonly cited issues for technology projects working towards government accountability (Finnegan, 2012).


A clear example of that limitation to engage with the general public is shown by the experience of the civil society initiative, “Map Kibera”, a community-mapping project. The local mappers working on the project were originally met “with suspicion by residents, and questioned about their right to collect and record information. Some mappers were asked whether they were being paid for their work, or were asked for payment in return for the data they received” (Finnegan, 2012).


This poor relationship with government might be also related, among other reasons, to the frustration coming from the absence of institutional mechanisms to submit the input/demand/grievance from the community of users.


Even when those mechanisms are in place, the lack of a timely response (or the complete absence of feedback) can lead to apathy from the users. Clear evidence of the use of the data/input collected and their contribution in correcting and/or punishing wrongdoing could incentivize users to engage with anti-corruption ICT projects more in figure. For example, in Bangalore, Bhaskar Rao, the Transport Commissioner for the state of Karnataka, used the data collected on I Paid a Bribe to push through reforms in the motor vehicle department. As a result, and in order to avoid bribes, licenses are now applied for online (Strom, 2012), and citizens have seen an impact from their use of transactional ICTs to report corruption.


Anupama Dokeniya explains that “transparency policies will achieve little if the political system does not create the incentives for officials to be sanctioned when corruption is exposed, for service providers to be penalized when poor performance or absenteeism is revealed, or for safeguards or structural reforms to be adopted when evidence of systemic governance problems emerge”  (Dokeniya, 2012). The same logic can be applied to all the ICT-led projects we have surveyed. Technology just provides the tools for a greater number of citizens to access a large amount of information, but the pivotal driver of success in these initiatives are broadly the same as for any other transparency policy.


Furthermore, following Finnegan, in many cases, even when there is significant interest from communities of users, if the application or platform is unable to produce any change, the interest and support from those before-enthusiastic users start to fade. Conversely, when participants realize that their contribution could lead to any relevant outcome, the esteem for the tool increases (Finnegan, 2012).



To lower those barriers (absence of an ICT literate community, lack of easy access to technology and/or high costs of accessing internet and other technologies), when a project is focused on government’s disclosure of public information (open data initiatives, transparency portals), it is important to count with the presence of intermediaries (centralized users) to amplify and simplify the disclosed data/information. To create awareness among citizens and to provide the tools for those citizens to later scrutinize, assess and hold governments accountable, intermediaries are key actors to engage users with that information, especially in political accountability initiatives as they translate the sometimes abstract ideas and data into simple messages and stories that other citizens can relate to.


Genuinely promoting transparency requires the hard work of doing investigative research, publishing reports, and promoting them to the media. Bubble 2.0 hype aside, the fanciest pop-up windows and Google Maps mashups won’t change that.” (Swartz, 2006)


Those intermediaries can be social or technical skilled groups. Some of the intermediaries may focus on creating applications to simplify the access and use of the raw data and some others may help with information distribution and citizens’ engagement to demand accountability. As previously mentioned, no every citizen is eager to engage with transparency initiatives (due to a lack of interest, skills or resources), therefore to intermediaries play a key role in the use of those provided ICT tools. The existence and capacity of technically skilled intermediaries is likely to be an important determining factor for the success of many ICT-led interventions, particularly open data interventions.



To present a clear idea about the above-mentioned questions on incentives and desired outcomes could help to the assessment of these interventions. There is no proper impact assessment without the presence of a theory of change.


Anecdotal evidence can be found about particular initiatives and some of the changes they produce, however, there is a lack of systematic assessments of these policies and their relationship to greater government transparency, accountability and participation in decision-making. In that sense, there are several recounts of individual initiatives but in terms of developing frameworks to assess each type of ICT initiative, there is a lack of academic research.


Moreover, in terms of initiatives related to the disclosure of information (transparency portals and Open Data Initiatives) the idea of counting visits to a website and/or the number of ‘downloads” of certain datasets or documents cannot be presented as indicators of usage, and much less, of impact of any of these policies. In many cases, these initiatives are compared to one another in terms of number of published documents and datasets as well as number of visits. However, these numbers could lead to wrong results, or partial ones at its best.





Avila, R., Feigenblatt, H., Heacock, R., & Heller, N. (2011). Global mapping of technology for transparency and accountability: New technologies.

Bhatnagar, S. (2003). E-government and access to information. In Global Corruption Report (pp. 24–32).

Dawson, S. (2012). Citizens wield web tools to combat petty bribery. Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Dimaggio, P., & Hargittai, E. (2001). From the “Digital Divide” to “Digital Inequality”: Studying Internet Use as Penetration Increases.

Dokeniya, A. (2012). #6 from 2012: Opening Government Data. But Why? People, Spaces, Deliberation World Bank Blog. Retrieved from

Finnegan, S. (2012). Using technology for collaborative transparency?: Risks and opportunities. In GIS Watch 2012 (Vol. 8, pp. 29–33).

Fung, A., Gilman, H. R., & Shkabatur, J. (2011). Impact case studies from middle income and developing countries New technologies.

Gigler, B.-S., Custer, S., & Rahemtulla, H. (2011). Realizing the Vision of Open Government Data: Opportunities, Challenges and Pitfalls (Abridged Version).

Gurstein, M. (2011). Open data: Empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone? First Monday, 16(2).

ITU. (2013). ICT Facts and Figures – The World in 2013.

Kalemera, A., Nalwoga, L., & Wakabi, W. (2012). How ICT tools are promoting citizen participation in Uganda.

Knox, C. (2009). Dealing with sectoral corruption in Bangladesh: Developing citizen involvement. Public Administration and Development, 29(2), 117–132. doi:10.1002/pad.523

Kuriyan, R., Bailur, S., Gigler, B.-S., & Park, K. R. (2012). Technologies for Transparency and Accountability. Washington DC.

Steinberg, T. (2011). Asking the wrong question about Premise (blog). Retrieved from

Strom, S. (2012, March 6). I Paid a Bribe and Similar Corruption-Exposing Sites Spread – New York Times. New York.

Swartz, A. (2006). Disinfecting the Sunlight Foundation. Aaron Swartz’s Raw Thoughs. Retrieved from

[1] However, it is important that access and use are not necessarily synonymous. Some studies have shown that: “…more people have access than use it (NTIA 1998); and, second, that whereas resources drive access, demand drives intensity of use among people who have access” (Dimaggio & Hargittai, 2001)


Thoughts? Reflections? Add a comment on the draft by 23rd November.

Exploring the incentives for adopting ICT innovation in the fight against corruption

[Summary: Invite for comments on a new draft report exploring incentives for ICT use in the fight against corruption]

Back in January, in response to a blog post by Doug Hadden, I wrote down a few reflections on the incentives for technology for transparency in developing countries. That led to a conversation with Silvana Fumega and the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre about a possible briefing note on the topic, which quickly turned into a full paper – designed to scope out issues for donors and governments to consider in looking at supporting ICT-based anti-corruption efforts, particularly in developing countries. Together with Silvana, I’ve been working on a draft over the last few months – and we’ve just placed a copy online for comments.

I’ll be blogging sections of the draft over the coming week, and you can find the full draft as a Google Document with comments enabled (until 18th November 2013) here.

Here’s the introduction, setting out the focus of the paper:

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) driven initiatives are playing an increasingly central role in discourses of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption. The Internet and mobile phones are widely hailed as powerful tools in the fight against corruption. From mobile phone based corruption crowd-sourcing platforms, to open government data portals providing citizens with access to state datasets, technology-centric interventions are increasingly attracting both political attention and donor funding flows. The Open Government Partnership (OGP) declaration, launched in 2011, commits the 60 OGP member states to “…seizing this moment to strengthen our commitments to promote transparency, fight corruption, empower citizens, and harness the power of new technologies to make government more effective and accountable” (Open Government Partnership, 2011). In an analysis of the first action plans published by OGP members (Global Integrity, 2012), e-government and open data related commitments were markedly the most common made, illustrating the prominence given to ICTs in creating more open and accountable government.

However, the ‘sales pitch’ for governments to adopt ICTs is far broader than their anti-corruption applications, and the fact that a government adopts some particular technology innovation does not necessarily mean that its potential corruption-reducing role will be realised. Criticisms have already been levelled at open data portals that give an initial appearance of government transparency, whilst either omitting any politically sensitive content, or remaining, in practice, inaccessible to the vast majority of the population; and there are numerous examples to be found of crowd-sourcing platforms designed to source citizen feedback on public services, or corruption reports, languishing with just a handful of reports, or no submissions made for months on end (Bailard et. al., 2012; Brown, 2013) Yet, as Strand argues, “while ICT is not a magic bullet when it comes to ensuring greater transparency and less corruption…it has a significant role to play as a tool in a number of important areas” (Strand, 2010). The challenge is neither to suppose that ICTs will inevitably drive positive change, nor to ignore them as merely high-tech distractions. Rather, there is a need to look in detail at the motivations for ICT adoption, and the context in which ICTs are being deployed, seeking to understand the ways in which strategic and sustainable investments can be made that promote the integrity of public services, and the capacity of officials, citizens and other stakeholders to secure effective and accountable governments.

In this issue paper we consider the reasons that may lead governments to adopt anti-corruption related ICT innovations, and we look at the evidence on how the uptake and use of these ICTs may affect their impacts. In doing so, we draw upon literature from a range of fields, including open government, transparency and anti-corruption, e-government and technology for transparency, and we draw in speculation from our observations of the open government field over the last five years. To ground our argument, we offer a range of illustrative case studies that show some of the different kinds of ICT interventions that governments are engaging with.

Comments? Questions? Add your notes on the Google Doc version of this draft here.


Bailard, C., Baker, R., Hindman, M., Livingston, S., & Meier, P. (2012). Mapping the Maps: A meta-level analysis of Ushahidi and Crowdmap.

Brown, G. (2013). Why Kenya’s open data portal is failing — and why it can still succeed | Opening Parliament Blog Post. Retrieved from

Global Integrity. (2012). So What’s In Those OGP Action Plans, Anyway? Global Integrity Blog. Retrieved from

Open Government Partnership. (2011). Open Government Declaration (pp. 1–2).

Strand, C. (2010). Introduction. In C. Strand (Ed.), Increasing transparency and fighting corruption through ICT: empowering people and communities (Vol. 8). SPIDER. doi:10.1016/0083-6656(66)90013-4

Opening the National Pupil Database?

[Summary: some preparatory notes for a response to the National Pupil Database consultation]

The Department for Education are currently consulting on changing the regulations that govern who can gain access to the National Pupil Database (NPD). The NPD holds detailed data on every student in England, going back over ten years, and covering topics from test and exam results, to information on gender, ethnicity, first language, eligibility for free school meals, special educational needs, and detailed information on absences or school exclusion. At present, only a specified list of government bodies are able to access the data, with the exception that it can be shared with suitably approved “persons conducting research into the educational achievements of pupils”. The DFE consultation proposed opening up access to a far wider range of users, in order to maximise the value of this rich dataset.

The idea that government should maximise the value of the data it holds has been well articulated in the open data policies and white paper that suggests open data can be an “effective engine of economic growth, social wellbeing, political accountability and public service improvement.”. However, the open data movement has always been pretty unequivocal on the claim that ‘personal data’ is not ‘open data’ – yet the DFE proposals seek to apply an open data logic to what is fundamentally a personal, private and sensitive dataset.

The DFE is not, in practice, proposing that the NPD is turned into an open dataset, but it is consulting on the idea that it should be available not only for a wider range of research purposes, but also to “stimulate the market for a broader range of services underpinned by the data, not necessarily related to educational achievement”. Users of the data would still go through an application process, with requests for the most sensitive data subject to additional review, and users agreeing to hold the data securely: but, the data, including easily de-anonymised individual level records, would still be given out to a far wider range of actors, with increased potential for data leakage and abuse.

Consultation and consent

I left school in 2001 and further education in 2003, so as far as I can tell, little of my data is captured by the NPD – but, if it was, it would have been captured based not on my consent to it being handled, but simple on the basis that it was collected as an essential part of running the school system. The consultation documents state that  “The Department makes it clear to children and their parents what information is held about pupils and how it is processed, through a statement on its website. Schools also inform parents and pupils of how the data is used through privacy notices”, yet, it would be hard to argue this would constitute informed consent for the data to now be shared with commercial parties for uses far beyond the delivery of education services.

In the case of the NPD, it would appear particularly important to consult with children and young people on their views of the changes – as it is, after all, their personal data held in the NPD. However the DFE website shows no evidence of particular efforts being taken to make the consultation accessible to under 18s. I suspect a carefully conducted consultation with diverse groups of children and young people would be very instructive to guide decision making in the DFE.

The strongest argument for reforming the current regulations in the consultation document is that, in the past, the DFE has had to turn down requests to use the data for research which appears to be in the interests of children and young people’s wellbeing. For example, “research looking at the lifestyle/health of children; sexual exploitation of children; the impact of school travel on the environment; and mortality rates for children with SEN”. It might well be that, consulted on whether the would be happy for their data to be used in such research, many children, young people and parents would be happy to permit a wider wording of the research permissions for the NPD, but I would be surprised if most would happily consent to just about anyone being able to request access to their sensitive data. We should also note that, whilst some of the research DFE has turned down sound compelling, this does not necessarily mean this research could not happen in any other way: nor that it could not be conducted by securing explicit opt-in consent. Data protection principles that require data to only be used for the purpose it was collected cannot just be thrown away because they are inconvenient, and even if consultation does highlight people may be willing for some wider sharing of their personal data for good, it is not clear this can be applied retroactively to data already collected.

Personal data, state data, open data

The NPD consultation raises an important issue about the data that the state has a right to share, and the data it holds in trust. Aggregate, non-disclosive information about the performance of public services is data the state has a clear right to share and is within the scope of open data. Detailed data on individuals that it may need to collect for the purpose of administration, and generating that aggregate data, is data held in trust – not data to be openly shared.

However, there are many ways to aggregate or process a dataset – and many different non-personally identifying products that could be built from a dataset, Many of these government will never have the need to create – yet they could bring social and economic value. So perhaps there are spaces to balance the potential value in personally sensitive datasets with the the necessary primacy of data protection principles.

Practice accommodations: creating open data products

In his article for the Open Data Special Issue of the Journal of Community Informatics I edited earlier this year, Rollie Cole talks about ‘practice accommodations’ between open and closed data. Getting these accommodations right for datasets like the NPD will require careful thought and could benefit from innovation in data governance structures. In early announcements of the Public Data Corporation (now the Public Data Group and Open Data User Group), there was a description of how the PDC could “facilitate or create a vehicle that can attract private investment as needed to support its operations and to create value for the taxpayer”. At the time I read this as exploring the possibility that a PDC could help private actors with an interest in public data products that were beyond the public task of the state, but were best gathered or created through state structures, to pool resources to create or release this data. I’m not sure that’s how the authors of the point intended it, but the idea potentially has some value around the NPD. For example, if there is a demand for better “demographic models [that can be] used by the public and commercial sectors to inform planning and investment decisions” derived from the NPD, are there ways in which new structures, perhaps state-linked co-operatives, or trusted bodies like the Open Data Institute, can pool investment to create these products, and to release them as open data? This would ensure access to sensitive personal data remained tightly controlled, but would enable more of the potential value in a dataset like NPD to be made available through more diverse open aggregated non-personal data products.

Such structures would still need good governance, including open peer-review of any anonymisation taking place, to ensure it was robust.

The counter argument to such an accommodation might be that it would still stifle innovation, by leaving some barriers to data access in place. However, the alternative, of DFE staff assessing each application for access to the NPD, and having to make a decision on whether a commercial re-use of the data is justified, and the requestor has adequate safeguards in place to manage the data effectively, also involves barriers to access – and involves more risk – so the counter argument may not take us that far.

I’m not suggesting this model would necessarily work – but introduce it to highlight that there are ways to increase the value gained from data without just handing it out in ways that inevitably increase the chance it will be leaked or mis-used.

A test case?

The NPD consultation presents a critical test case for advocates of opening government data. It requires us to articulate more clearly the different kinds of data the state holds, to be be much more nuanced about the different regimes of access that are appropriate for different kinds of data, and to consider the relative importance of values like privacy over ideas of exploiting value in datasets.

I can only hope DFE listen to the consultation responses they get, and give their proposals a serious rethink.


Further reading and action: Privacy International and Open Rights Group are both preparing group consultation inputs, and welcome input from anyone with views of expert insights to offer.

What should a UK Open Government Partnership Forum look like?

[Summary: Open spaces events across that whole UK that provide access for all ages are key to an effective UK OGP forum]

A key step in a countries participation in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) involves establishing ongoing public consultation between government, citizens, civil society organisations and the private sector on the development and implementation of OGP action plans. Given the UK is currently co-chair of OGP, and will be hosting the next OGP plenary meeting in London in March next year, establishing an effective, credible and dynamic forum for ongoing multi-stakeholder participation in OGP should be a top priority.


Members of the informal network of UK-based Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) engaging with the OGP process have been thinking about what such a forum could look like, and in this post I want to offer one possible take, based on my experience of taking part in a range of open space and unConference events over recent years.

Proposal: At the heart of the UK OGP forum should be a series of regular open space events, taking place across the UK, with a focus on getting out of London. Events should be open to anyone to take part – from active citizens and community groups, to social entrepreneurs, private sector firms, national and local government representatives and  local and international CSOs.
Simple principles of inclusion should  be established to ensure the events provide a welcoming environment for all, including for children and young people, and older people .

What is an open space or unConference?

Open space events are created by their participants. Rather than having a set agenda, the discussion agenda for an open space event is set on the day by participants announcing sessions and discussions they would like to take part in. Participants then self-select to take part in the sessions they have the most interest in. Simple principles encourage participants, wherever they come from, to take shared ownership of the discussions and the outcomes of the day. Open space events and unConferences can have a focussed theme to guide the focus of the specific sessions that take place.

I first encountered open space on a large scale in the UKGovCamp unconferences, which, as it turns out, are in many ways a paradigmatic example of key aspects of digital open government in action. At the annual UKGovCamp events (and their spin off LocalGovCamp events around the UK), civil servants, citizens, CSOs, social innovators, business people, and event a few politicians, spend a day in practical conversation about how to make government work better – sharing knowledge, developing plans and deepening shared commitment to shared problems.

See the Wikipedia article on Open-space technology for more on open space, and links to examples of open space events in action.

Why should open space events be part of the UK OGP forum?

Open Government is about more than a few action plan commitments to better ICT systems or increasing access to data. It involves active rethinking the relationship between citizen and state both as democracy continues to evolve, and as technologies, globalisation and other social forces reconfigure the capabilities of both citizens and governments. Open Government needs mass participation – and open space events are one way to develop action-focussed dialogues that support large-scale participation.

  • A UK OGP Forum needs to be not only about feeding demands up to government, but also about disseminating OGP ideas and commitments across the whole of the public sector. For many people, it is open local government which will have most impact on their lives, and taking the OGP conversation on the road to events that can include all tiers of government provides an opportunity to join up open government practice across government.
  • Open space events are also very cost-effective. You need a room, some refreshments, some flip-chart paper – and, well, that’s about it.
  • Open space events are powerful network building opportunities – helping develop both civil society open government networks, and build new connections between civil society and government (and even across different parts of government)
  • With social media and a few social reporters, open space events can also become largely self-documenting, and with good facilitation it is possible to include remote participation, using the Internet to make sure anyone with a contribution to make to a topic under discussion can input into the dialogue.
  • Most of all, open space events embody principles of openness, collaboration and innovation – and so are an ideal vehicle for developing a dynamic UK OGP forum.

How could it work in practice?

Well, there’s nothing to stop anyone organising their own Open Government unConference, inviting civil servants and a whole range of other stakeholders, recording the key outcomes of the discussions, and then sending that all to the Cabinet Office team working on the UK’s OGP participation. However, to make open space a core part of the UK OGP process a number of elements may be worth considering. Here’s one sketch of how that could work:

  • In partnership with the OGP team in government, planning a series of quarterly OGP open space events, which central civil servants commit to take part in. These would take place in each of the nations of the United Kingdom, and should have as their core theme the commitments of the UK Action Plan. Events should issue and open invite, and should be designed to ensure maximum diversity of participants from across all sectors.
  • In addition, government, CSOs and other stakeholders should agree to providing sponsorship for thematic OGP open space meetings. Anyone could organise a thematic meeting, providing they apply key principles of inclusiveness, open participation and transparency in the organisation of the events.
  • The site becomes a platform to collate notes from all the discussion sessions, drawing on social media content and notes captured by facilitators and rapporteurs at the events.
  • Each individual open space discussion within the events does not have to reach a consensus on its topic, but would have the option of producing a 1/2 page summary of discussions that can be shared online. Government commit to reading all these notes when reviewing the action plan.
  • Existing open space events (e.g. UKGovCamp) could choose to add an OGP track of discussions, feeding in as any thematic event would.

What about formal representation and accountability? How do decisions get made?

Some of the other ideas for a UK OGP Forum are far more focussed on formal structures and procedures. I don’t reject the value of formal structures where questions of accountability and representation are in play. However, unless actual authority to decide what does into country action plans is shared with an OGP forum, then as a consultative body, a more open model would seem more appropriate.

Established CSOs have existing channels through which they are talking with government. A forum should  help them co-ordinate their asks and offers on open government issues through existing channels, rather than add another narrow channel of communication.

Open processes are not immune from their problems: they can suffer from those who shout loudest being those who are heard most, or from those in power being able to pick and choose which voices they engage with. However, finding ways to deal with these issues in the open is an important challenge and learning journey for us to go on if we truly want to find inclusive models of open governance and open government that work…

A realistic proposal?

I’ve written this outline sketch up as a contribution to the debate on what an OGP forum should look like. Government tendencies to control processes, and manage engagement in neat boxes can be strong. But to an extent open government has to be about challenging that – and as a process that will involve a shared learning journey for both government, civil society and citizens, I hope this does make for a realistic proposal…

OGP Take Aways

[Summary: Ten observations and take-aways from #ogp2012]

In an attempt to use reflective blogging to capture thoughts from the Open Government Partnership meeting in Brasilia I’ve jotted down ten key learning points, take-aways, or areas I’ve been musing on. Where critical, I hope they are taken in the spirit of constructive critique.

1) Good ideas come from everywhere
Warren Krafchik made this point in the closing plenary, and it’s one that was apparent throughout OGP. The OGP provides a space for shared learning in all directions: across sectors and across countries. I’ve certainly found my own understanding of open data has been deepened by thinking about how the lessons from Transparent Chennai and Bangalore might apply in the UK context, and I look forward to OGP exchanges providing space for much more sharing of challenges and solutions.

2) The quality of Right to Information really matters
Another bit of shared learning from OGP was previewed in a Guardian article by Arunu Roy writing about the potential strength of the Indian Right to Information (RTI) Act, as against the UK Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. A lot of the civil society participants I spoke with had experience of working with their national RTI laws, or lobbying for them to be created, and the quality, rather than just the presence, of the laws, was a key theme. Some RTI laws require payment to request data; some allow anonymity, others ensure every requester provides their full details. These differences matter, and that presents a challenge for the OGP mechanisms, which at the moment simply require a RTI Bill as a condition of joining.

3) Whistle blower protection is an important factor in the journey from openness to impact
In the closing plenary, Samantha Powell summed this one up: “when you have access to information that challenges conventional wisdom, or when you witness some wrongdoing, you need the protection to come forward with it, and to often that protection is lacking”.

Open data, and access to information might give people working in organisations some of the pieces of the jigsaw they need to spot corruption and wrongdoing. But if they have no protection to highlight that, we may miss many of the opportunities for more open information to bring accountability and impact.

4) We’ve not yet cracked culture change and capacity building
The shift to open government is not just a shift of policy, it also involves culture shift inside government (and to an extent in how civil society interfaces with government). I heard a few mentions of the need for culture change in National Action Plan sessions, but no clear examples of concerted government efforts to address ‘closed cultures’.

5) Ditto effective large scale public engagement
Many countries hadn’t consulted widely on their National Action Plans, and few action plans I heard details of included much substantive on public participation. In part this was explained because of the short lead time that many countries had to produce their action plans: but for me this seems to point to a number of significant challenges we need to work out how to address if open government is to be participative government. Working out more agile models of engagement, that still meet desirable criteria of being inclusive and accessible is a big challenge. For the OGP, it’s also interesting to consider the role of ‘engagement with citizens’ through mass participation, and engagement with CSOs, potentially as mediators of citizen voice. One idea I explored in a few conversations was whether, when OGP Governments support mass-participation in shaping action plans, the raw input should be shared and jointly analysed with CSOs.

6) There is a need to distinguish e-government, from open government
As one of the speakers put it in the closing plenary of day 1: “the open government partnership is not an e-government partnership”. E-government to make public service provision more effective has it’s place, and may overlap with open government, but in itself e-government is not one-and-the-same-as open government.

7) We need both data infrastructures, and accessibility ecosystem, for open data
This is something I’ll write a bit more on soon, but broadly there needs to be a recognition that not only do both government and civil society have a role in providing national infrastructures of open data to support governance, but they also both have a role in stimulating eco-systems that turn that data into information and make it accessible. Some of that comes out a bit in the five stars of open data engagement, though stimulating eco-systems might involve more than just engagement around specific datasets.

8) We need to develop a deeper dialogue between technologists and issue activists
David Eaves has blogged about OGP highlighting a sense of a divide between many of the established civil society groups, and the more emergent technology-skilled open data / open government community. The message that open government is broader than open data can be read in multiple ways. It can be taken as trying to avoid an OGP agenda being used to further ‘open data from government’ as opposed to ‘open data for open government’. It can be taken as a downplaying of the opportunity that technologies bring for opening government. Or it can be taken as calling for technologies to build upon, rather than to try and side-step or leap-over, the hard work and often very contested work that has gone into securing access to information policies and other open government foundations. Some of the best cases I heard about over the OGP were where, having secured a right to information, activists were then able to use technologies and data to more effectively drive accountability.

Finding the common ground, and admitting spaces of difference, between technology and issue-focussed open government communities is another key challenge as OGP develops.

9) Monitoring should ultimately be about change for citizens, not just commitments and process
One of the key tasks for the OGP Steering Committee over the coming months is to develop an Independent Review Mechanism to monitor country action plans. In one of the panel sessions this was described more as an ‘evidence collection’ mechanism, to ensure all voices in a country are heard, rather than an assessment and judgement mechanism – so it holds out real potential to support both third-party evaluation (i.e. non OGP) of country progress against action plans, and to support formative evaluation and learning.

One point which came up a number of times was that OGP should be about change for citizens, not just commitments and process. A IRM that asks the ‘What’s Changed?‘ question of a wide range of citizens, particularly those normally excluded from decision making processes, would be good to see.

10) Deciding on the tenth item for a ten-item list is tricky
Instead you can just link to wisdom from @tkb.

Reflecting on the Open Government Partnership

I’ve been  in Brasilia this week for at meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a new international initiative now involving 55 governments and run by a joint government and civil society steering committee, to secure state commitments to promoting transparency, empowering citizens, fighting corruption, and harnessing new technologies to strengthen governance. Unfortunately, new technologies and WiFi access were a little lacking at the conference venue on the first day, so I’m only now getting to blog some of the notes and reflections I jotted down during the event. I’ve tried to use ” quotes for “near verbatim” quotes (some via the translators), and ‘for paraphrases’ on elements that jumped out at me from different presentations.

The morning opened with presentations from US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Nika Gilauri, President of Georgia, Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanazania and Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil, discussing their commitments to open government.

Hilary Clinton’s speech highlighted that 1/4 of the worlds people now live in countries which have joined the OGP, ‘each of which has outlined concrete, credible steps, to open government’, although noting that it is ‘not enough to assert we will be committed to openness, we have to deliver on the commitments we have made’. Hilary’s speech also set out a belief that the biggest divisions between states in future will not be on geographic, wealth or religious lines, but will be concerned with openness: “those societies that believe they can be closed to change, closed to beliefs and ideas different from theirs, will find that in our Internet world they will be quickly left behind.”. This focus on technologically driven change was an explicit strand in both Clinton’s speech, and much of the OGP discourse, although the speech also ended with a recognition that ‘new tools of the digital age will not change human nature, only we can do that’.

Nika Gilauri’s speech opened with an inspiring claim: ‘I truly believe that open government initiative and partnership can leave poverty behind’. The logic is that challenging corruption can lead to governments using resources more efficiently and effectively. The rest of Nika’s speech focussed on the impacts of ‘open government’ reforms on Georgia, where a drive to address corruption has seen the figures for the number of Georgians who paid a bribe in the last 12 months drop to 4%, from a high of 95%. Nika highlighted that the reforms ‘destroy the myth that corruption is cultural, and give hope to other countries’ where corruption appears entrenched. Key to explore in any of the claims made for the effects of open government is how specifically ‘open government’ policies, like promoting transparency or increasing citizen access to decision making mechanisms, have interacted with legal instruments and enforcement measures in anti-corruption. I don’t know the Georgia context, but Nika’s speech for me highlighted that we need to look in depth at understanding the effect openness has, and the wider contextual factors (good and bad) that enable it to drive change.

Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania covered a range of important aspects of developing open government, from promoting press freedom, to parliamentary strengthening. Open government is not only about developing new institutions and structures, but also about reforming existing parts of our democratic systems. Jakaya noted that the Tanzania OGP Action Plan has prioritised local government – looking at basic education, health and water supply, on the grounds that these are most relevant to citizens. The claim ‘getting information on local services is more important than information on complex policy arrangements’ is one that sparked a lot of discussion in the research workshop IDRC convened just before the OGP, so it was interesting to see this claim being made in the opening speeches.

The final opening speech was from Dilma Rousseff who described a range of ways the Brazilian government have been promoting transparency, including introducing a new Access to Information Law, and developing specific transparency portals to cover specific areas such as spending on the World Cup (just across from the conference venue we could see many cranes building a new stadium in Brasilia to host the World Cup) and Olympics. The opportunities for engagement in open government via sports etc. (and the missed opportunity for a UK Olympics transparency portal) are interesting to consider. Dilma also draw attention to the financial sector: ‘in the absence of monitoring, international financial flows become subject to manipulation -with consequent losses for the world economy’, an input that was undoubtedly well received by Chris Taggart of Open Corporates who has been advocating hard for governments to prioritise the transparency of company information. Dilma’s speech also focussed on developing new channels for public participation, from national policy conferences to online engagement processes and public comment periods for new laws, a theme that was overall fairly underdeveloped in most of the OGP sessions I saw.

In the afternoon, countries were presenting their National Action Plans, making commitments that they will deliver as part of the OGP process. I was involved in inputting into a civil society assessment of the UK’s National Action Plan just before OGP, so was keen to see what would be said about it. I’ve blogged more on that over the UK Civil Society OGP blog, but essentially I took away from the session (and other sessions where I heard UK Director of Transparency Tim Kelsey speaking) a real concern that the current framing of open government from the UK Government is (a) very narrowly focussed on open data measures, and (b) as Jo Bates points out in her excellent paper, potentially a co-option of an open government and open data agenda in the interests of a reduced and marketised state: a policy agenda that our last election suggests does not have a popular electoral mandate. I hope my fears on (b) are misplaced, and that the commitment made in that session to a review of the action plan creates space to broaden the UK agenda and commitments as part of the OGP, but I suspect there is a lot of work still to do to support a constructive critical assessment of domestic UK open government.

I’ll post a few key learning take-aways from the whole meeting shortly, but in terms of overall impressions: there were some powerful and inspiring stories of the move towards open government from many countries, including from Omar Abdulkarim, Deputy Prime Minister of Libya, and Ben Abbes, Secretary of State of Tunisia and from a global perspective, building a forum to work out new models of open governance, and to do that through a partnership of civil society and elected governments is an incredibly exciting process to be starting. The meeting format in Brasilia didn’t necessarily make the most of opportunities for ‘open space’ discussions between civil society and governments in a constructive form, collectively addressing contemporary challenges of governance, but the very bringing together of people created the space for many great conversations to happen. Brasilia 2012 was just the start of many of the conversations, and the future of the OGP I suspect will depend on how they can develop and be sustained over the coming year…


5-Stars of Open Data Engagement?

[Summary: Notes from a workshop at UKGovCamp that led to sketching a framework to encourage engagement and impact of open data initiatives might contain]

Update: The 5 Stars of Open Data Engagement now have their own website at

In short

* Be demand driven

* * Provide context

* * * Support conversation

* * * * Build capacity & skills

* * * * * Collaborate with the community

The Context

I’ve spent the last two days at UKGovCamp, an annual open-space gathering of people from inside and around local and national government passionate about using digital technologies for better engagement, policy making and practice. This years event was split over two days: Friday for conversations and short open-space slots; Saturday for more hands-on discussions and action. Suffice to say, there were plenty of sessions on open data on both days – and this afternoon we tried to take forward some of the ideas from Day 1 about open data engagement in a practical form.

There is a general recognition of the gap between putting a dataset online, and seeing data driving real social change. In a session on Day 1 led by @exmosis, we started to dig into different ways to support everyday engagement with data, leading to Antonio from suggesting that open data initiatives really needed to have some sort of ‘Charter of engagement’ to outline ways they can get beyond simply publishing datasets, and get to supporting people to use data to create social, economic and administrative change. So, we took that as a challenge for day 2, and in session on ‘designing an engaging open data portal’ a small group of us (including Liz StevensonAnthony Zacharzewski, Jon Foster and Jag Goraya) started to sketch what a charter might look like.

You can see the (still developing) charter draft in this Google Doc. However, it was Jag Goraya‘s suggestion that the elements of a charter we were exploring might also be distilled into a ’5 Stars’ that seemed to really make some sense of the challenge of articulating what it means to go beyond publishing datasets to do open data engagement. Of course, 5-star rating scales have their limitations, but I thought it worth sharing the draft that was emerging.

What is Open Data Engagement?

We were thinking about open data engagement as the sorts of things an open data initiative should be doing beyond just publishing datasets. The engagement stars don’t relate to the technical openness or quality of the datasets (there are other scales for that), and are designed to be flexible to be able to apply to a particular dataset, a thematic set of datasets, or an open data initiative as a whole.

We were also thinking about open government data in our workshop; though hopefully the draft has wider applicability. The ‘overarching principles’ drafted for the Charter might also help put the stars in context:

Key principles of open government data: “Government information and data are common resources, managed in trust by government. They provide a platform for public service provision, democratic engagement and accountability, and economic development and innovation. A commitment to open data involves making information and data resources accessible to all without discrimination; and actively engaging to ensure that information and data can be used in a wide range of ways.”

Draft sketch of five stars of Open Data Engagement

The names and explanatory text of these still need a lot of work; you can suggest edits as comments in the Google Doc where they were drafted.

* Be demand driven

Are your choices about the data you release, how it is structured, and the tools and support provided around it based on community needs and demands? Have you got ways of listening to people’s requests for data, and responding with open data?

** Provide good meta-data; and put data in context

Do your data catalogue provide clear meta-data on datasets, including structured information about frequency of updates, data formats and data quality? Do you include qualitative information alongside datasets such as details of how the data was created, or manuals for working with the data? Do you link from data catalogue pages to analysis your organisation, or third-parties, have already carried out with the data, or to third-party tools for working with the data?

Often organisations already have detailed documentation of datasets (e.g. analysis manuals and How To’s) which could be shared openly with minimal edits. It needs to be easy to find these when you find a dataset. It’s also common that governments have published analysis of the datasets (they collected it for a reason), or used it in some product or service, and so linking to these from the dataset (and vice-versa) can help people to engage with it.

*** Support conversation around the data

Can people comment on datasets, or create a structured conversation around data to network with other data users? Do you join the conversations? Are there easy ways to contact the individual ‘data owner’ in your organisation to ask them questions about the data, or to get them to join the conversation? Are there offline opportunities to have conversations that involve your data?

**** Build capacity, skills and networks

Do you provide or link to tools for people to work with your datasets? Do you provide or link to How To guidance on using open data analysis tools, so people can build their capacity and skills to interpret and use data in the ways they want to? Are these links contextual (e.g. pointing people to GeoData tools for a geo dataset, and to statistical tools for a performance monitoring dataset)? Do you go out into the community to run skill-building sessions on using data in particular ways, or using particular datasets? Do you sponsor or engage with community capacity building?

When you give people tools – you help them do one thing. When you give people skills, you open the possibility of them doing many things in future. Skills and networks are more empowering than tools. 

***** Collaborate on data as a common resource

Do you have feedback loops so people can help you improve your datasets? Do you collaborate with the community to create new data resources (e.g. derived datasets)? Do you broker or provide support to people to build and sustain useful tools and services that work with your data?

It’s important for all the stars that they can be read not just with engaging developers and techies in mind, but also community groups, local councillors, individual non-techie citizens etc. Providing support for collaboration can range from setting up source-code sharing space on GitHub, to hanging out in a community centre with print-outs and post-it notes. Different datasets, and different initiatives will have different audiences and so approaches to the stars – but hopefully there is a rough structure showing how these build to deeper levels of engagement.

Where next?

Hopefully Open Data Sheffield will spend some time looking at this framework at a future meeting – and all comments are welcome on the Google doc. Clearly there’s lot to be done to make these more snappy, focussed and neat – but if we do find there’s a fairly settled sense of a five stars of engagement framework (if not yet good language to express it) then it would be interesting to think about whether we have the platforms and processes in place anywhere to support all of this: finding the good practice to share. Of course, there might already be a good engagement framework out there we missed when sketching this all out – so comments to that effect welcome too…



Ammended 22nd January to properly credit Antonio of as originator of the Charter idea

Digital innovations are not always digital (and other reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation lab design)

[Summary: assorted learning from participation and hack-days applied to ideas about a youth-focussed digital innovation lab.]

Right Here, Comic Relief and Nominet Trust have a really interesting tender out right now for someone to deliver two ‘Innovation Labs’ focussed on helping “young people to look after their mental health and to access appropriate help and support”.

They describe how the labs should provide young people with the opportunity to work with mental health, youth work and design professionals to design digital tools that will meet their needs.”  If it weren’t for the unknowns of the schedule for my PhD that starts in October, it’s exactly the sort of project Practical Participation would be putting in a proposal for*, but, with the freedom to adopt a more open innovation exchange style bit of sharing around a proposal, and having been unable to resist jotting a few notes about how I might approach the tender, here’s a few quick reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation labs, drawing on learning from previous participation projects.

Digital innovations are not always digital

In my experience working with youth services and mental health services exploring use of digital tools, the biggest gaps between the potential of digital tools and their use in practice is not down to a lack of Apps or widgets – but comes down to a lack of training, inadequate policies, or other small barriers.

The most effective outcomes of a digital innovation lab could be how to guides for practitioners, youth-led training for mental health workers in how to engage online, or new protocols that make sure mental health staff have a framework and incentives to make use of digital tools – as much as they might be new apps and websites.

Set up to succeed

I’ve experienced and observed a number of participation projects in the past that have, mostly unintentionally, set young people up to fail by asking them to redesign services or systems without reference to the staff who operate those systems day-to-day, or the realities of the budgetary and legal constraints the services operate under. Instead of empowering young people to bring their lived experience to real problems, whilst avoiding organisational agendas crushing the ideas and insights young people can bring, participation projects can end up asking young people to solve problems without giving them all the information they need to find viable solutions.

In innovation events with both young people and adults ideas often come up which, whilst great in principle, draw on mistaken assumptions about resources that might realistically be available, or about how digital tools might be adopted and used (it’s not uncommon to hear ‘innovators’ of any age suggesting they’ll build ‘the next Facebook’ to bring together people to discuss some particular issue). Finding the balance between free-flowing innovation, and realisable ideas is a challenge – and increased if, for the majority of participants, the event is their first innovation lab, or project teams don’t have people with experience of taking an project through from idea to implementation. Finding facilitators who can combine the right balance of technical realism, with a focus on youth-led innovation, is important, as is offering training for facilitators.

Projects like Young Rewired State offer an interesting model, where young people who have participated in past events, return as young mentors in future years. Finding a community of young mentors may also prove useful for an innovation lab.

Involving adults

It’s not only mentors and digital experts who have a role to play in the design process, but also mental health professionals and volunteer adults who work day-to-day with young people. In policy consultations in the past we’ve used a ‘fish bowl’ like approach to adults involvement, starting the day with adults as observers only on the outside of circles where young people are developing plans and ideas; moving to a stage (perhaps after an hour) when young people can invite adults into the discussion, but adults can’t ‘push in’; and then (another hour or so later) moving to a stage when adults and young people participate together. Whilst artificial, in a policy consultation, this sort of process helped address issues around the balance of power between young people and adults, without removing the benefits to be found from youth-adult dialogue. In an innovation and design situation, this exact model might not be appropriate – but thinking about lightweight processes or ‘rules’ to help the relationship between young people and adults may be useful.

An alternative approach we’ve taken at past participation events is to have a parallel track of activities for workers coming to the event with young people: could you set a team of adult innovators competing with young innovators to contrast the ideas they come up with?

There are no representative young people

I’m not a representative 26 year old. There aren’t representative 17 year olds. Or 15 year olds. Or any age for that matter. People often design innovations for themselves: that doesn’t mean they’re designing for all young people. Not all young people are technology experts. In fact, most aren’t. There is no such thing as a digital native. Bringing the lived experiences of young people with experience of mental health services and challenges to the design of services is still a very very good thing. It can mean massive improvements in services. But often there’s a risk of implicitly or explicitly thinking of service-user or youth participants as ‘representatives’ – and that tends to be an unhelpful framing. Understanding participants as individuals with particular skills and insights to bring tends to work better.

Freedom and frameworks

I’ve spent most of this afternoon at the Guardian offices in London as a mentor for young hackers at Young Rewired State. Young Rewired State is a week-long event taking place across the country for young people interested in building things with open data and digital platforms. Young Rewired State centres have varied in how much structure they have had: some simply providing a room, and some mentors on hand, for young people to identify what they want to work on and get hacking. Others have supported the participants to work through a design process, offering more structured how-to guidance and support. Some young people thrive and innovate best with a framework and structure to work within. Others need the freedom from pre-planned programmes and tight agendas in order to innovate. Having no agenda at all can exclude those who need structure. But an agenda that is too tight, or a programme that is too prescriptive can miss innovation opportunities. Fortunately, the Innovation Labs tender that sparked this post highlights that the events themselves should be co-designed with young people – so there’s space to negotiate and work this one out.

Keep out of the dragons den

I’ve sat on a few ‘dragons den’ style panels recently – responding to presentations about young people’s project ideas. And I’ve yet to be convinced that they really make a useful contribution.


This post has been in the spirit of reclaiming reflective space, and has no neat ending. 

*Although I’m not putting in a proposal around the labs, I’d still be really interested to get involved should a youth-engagement and effective technology focussed facilitator/action researcher/data-wrangler be useful to whoever does end up running the labs.