Category Archives: Open Government

ConDatos Talk notes: Open data as strategy

[Summary: Notes from a conference talk]

Last week I was in Colombia for AbreLatam and ConDatos, Latin America’s open data conference. Thanks to a kind invitation from [Fabrizio Scrollini](http://www.twitter.com/Fscrollini], I had the opportunity to share a few thoughts in one of the closing keynotes. Here is a lightly edited version of my speaker notes, and full slides are available here.

Open Data as strategy

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-18-05-11In a few months, Barak Obama will leave the White House. As one of his first acts as US President, was to issue a memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, framed in terms of Transparency, Participation and Collaboration.

This memo has often been cited as the starting gun for a substantial open data movement around the world, although the roots of the open data movement go deeper, and in many countries adopting open data policies, they have blended with long-standing political priorities and agendas.

For myself, I started studying the open data field in 2009: exploring the interaction between open data and democracy, and I’ve been interested ever since in exploring the opportunities and challenges of using open data as a tool for social change.

So, it seems like a good time to be looking back and asking where have we got to eight years on from Obama’s memo, and nearly ten years since the Sebastapol Open Government Data Principles?

We’ve got an increasing number of datasets published by governments. Data portals abound. And there are many people now working in roles that involve creating, mediating, or using open data. But we’ve still got an impact gap. Many of the anticipated gains from open data, in terms of both innovation and accountability, appear not to have been realised. And as studies such as the Open Data Barometer have shown, many open data policies have a narrow scope, trying to focus on data for innovation, without touching upon data for transparency, participation or collaboration.

Eight years on – many are questioning the open data hype. We increasingly hear the question: with millions of datasets out there, who is using the data?

My argument is that we’ve spent too much time thinking about open data as an object, and not enough thinking about it as an approach: a strategy for problem solving.

Open data as an approach

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-18-07-39
What do I mean by this?

Well, if you think of open data as an object, it has a technical definition. It is a dataset which is machine-readable, published online, and free to re-use.

The trouble with thinking of open data in this way is that it ignores the contents of the data. It imagines that geodata maps of an entire country, when published as open data, are the same sort of thing as hospital statistics, or meta-data on public contracts. It strips these datasets from their context, and centralises them as static resources uploaded onto open data portals.

But, if we think of open data as an approach, we can get towards a much clearer picture of the kinds of strategies needed to secure an impact from each and every dataset.

What is the open data approach?

Well – it is about transparency, participation and collaboration.

So many of the policy or business problems we face today need access to data. A closed approach goes out and gathers that data inside the organisation. It uses the data to address the local problem, and all other potential uses of that data are ignored.

An open approach considers the opportunities to build shared open data infrastructure. An infrastructure is not just something technical: it involves processes of governance, of data quality assurance, and community building.

Building an open infrastructure involves thinking about your needs, and then also considering the needs of other potential data users – and working together to create and maintain datasets that meet shared goals.

Ultimately, it recognises open data as a public good.

Let me give an example

In the United States, ‘211 Community Directory services play an important role in helping refer people to sources of support for health or social welfare issues. Local 211 providers need to gather and keep up-to-date information on the services available in their area. This can be expensive and time consuming, and often involves groups collecting overlapping information – duplicating efforts.

The Open Referral initiative is working to encourage directory providers to publish their directories as open data, and to adopt a common standard for publishing the data. The lead organiser of the initiative, Greg Bloom, has invested time in working with existing system vendors and information providers, to understand how an open approach can strengthen, rather than undermine their business models.

In the early stages, and over the short-term, for any individual referal provider, getting involved in a collaborative open data effort, might involve more costs than benefits. But the more data that is provided, the more network effects kick in, and the greater the public good, and private value, that is generated.

This demonstrates open data as an approach. There isn’t an open referral dataset to begin with: just issolated proprietary directories. But through participation and collaboration, groups can come together to build shared open data that enables them all to do their job better.

It’s not just about governments pubishing data

It is important to note that an open data approach is not just about governent data. It can also be about data from the voluntary sector and the private sector.

With targetted transparency policies governemnts can mandate private sector data sharing to support consumer choice, and create a level playing field amongst firms.

As in the Open Referral example, voluntary sector and government organisations can share data together to enable better cross-organisation collaboration.

One of the most interesting findings from work of the Open Data in Developing Countries research network in Brazil, was that work on open data created a space for conversations between government and civil society about processes of data collection and use. The impact of an open data approach was not just on the datasets made available, but also on the business processes inside government. By engaging with external data re-users, government had the opportunity to rethink the data it collected, with potential impacts on the data available for internal decision making, as well as external re-use. We are seeing the same thing happen in our work on Open Contracting, which I will discuss more shortly.

The falacy of more data now

Before I move on, however, I want to caution against the common ‘falacy of more data now’.

There are many people who got into working with open data because they care about a particular problem: from local transport or environmental sustainability, to accountable politics, or better education. In exploring those problem, they have identified a need for data and have allied with the open data movement to get hold of datasets. But it is easy at this point to lose sight of the original problem – and to focus on getting access to more data. Just like research papers that conclude calling for more research, an open data approach can get stuck in always looking for more data.

It is important to regularly loop back to problem solving: using the data we do have available to address problems. Checking what role data really plays in the solution, and thinking about the other elements it sits alongside. Any only with a practical understanding, developed from trying to use data, of the remaining gaps, iterating back to further advocacy and action to improve data supply.

Being strategic

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-18-07-49
So, if open data is, as I’ve argued, an approach, how do we approach it strategically? And how do we get beyond local pilots, to impacts at scale?

Firstly, ‘open by default’ is a good starting point. Strategically speaking. If the default when a dataset is created is to share it, and only restrict access when there is a privacy case, or strong business case, for doing so – then it is much easier for initiatives that might use data for problem solving to get started.

But, ‘open by default’ is not enough. We need to think about standards, governance, and the ecosystem of different actors involved in creating, using, providing access to, and adding value on top of open data. And we need to recognise that each dataset involves it’s own politics and power dynamics.

Let’s use a case study of Open Contracting to explore this more. Colombia has been an Open Contracting leader, one of the founder members of the Open Contracting Partnership, and part of the C5 along with Mexico, France, Ukraine and the UK. In fact, it’s worth noting that Latin America has been a real leader in Open Contracting – with leading work also in Paraguay, and emerging activities in Argentina.

Open Contracting in focus

Public contracting is a major problem space. $9.5tn a year are spent through public contracts, yet some estimates find as much as 30% of that might leak out of the system without leading to public benefit. Not only can poorly managed contracts lead to the loss of taxpayers money, but corruption and mismanagement can be a source of conflict and instability. For countries experiencing political change, or engaged in post-conflict reconstruction, this issue is in even sharper relief. In part this explains why Ukraine has been such an Open Contracting leader, seeking to challenge a political history of corruption through new transparent systems.

Open Contracting aims to bring about better public contracting through transparency and participation.

Standards

To support implementation of open contracting principles, the Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) led the development of OCDS – the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS). When working with the Web Foundation I was involved in the design of the standard, and now my team at Open Data Services Co-operative continue to develop and support the standard for OCP.

OCDS sets out a common technical specification for providing data on all stages of a contracting process, and for linking out to contracting documents. It describes what to publish, and how to publish it.

The standard helps Open Contracting scale in two ways:

  • Firstly, it makes it easier for data publishers to follow good practices in making their data re-usable. The standard itself is produced through an open and collaborative process, and so someone adopting the standard can take advantage of all the thinking that has gone into how to model contracting processes, and manage complex issues like changes over time, or uniquely identifying organisations.

  • Secondly, the standard is built around a number the needs of a number of different users: from the SME looking for business opportunities, to the government official looking to understand their own spend, and the civil society procurement monitor tracking contract delivery. By acting as a resource for all these different stakeholders, they can jointly advocate for OCDS data, rather than working separately on securing separate access to the particular data points they individually care about.

Importantly though, the standard is responsive to local needs. In Mexico, where both the federal government and Mexico City have been leading adopters, work has taken place to translate the standard, and then to look at how it can be extended and localised to fit with national law, whilst also maintaining connections with data shared in other countries.

Governance & dialogue

When it comes to enabling collaboration through open data, governance becomes vitally important. No-one is going to build their business or organisation on top of a government dataset if they don’t trust that the dataset will be available next year, and the year after that.

And governments are not going to be able to guarantee that they will provide a dataset year after year unless they have good information governance in place. We’ve seen a number of cases where data publishers have had to withdraw datasets because they did not think carefully about privacy issues when preparing the data for release.

For Open Contracting, the standard itself has an open governance process. And in Open Contracting Partnership ‘Showcase and Learning Projects’ there is a strong emphasis on building local partnerships, making sure there is dialogue between data publishers and users – creating the feedback loops needed to build a data infrastructure that can be relied upon.

In the UK, adopting of OCDS will soon give the government a better view of how far different departments and agencies are meeting their obligations to publish contracting information. By being transparent with the data, and being transparent about data quality, civil society and the private sector can get more involved in pushing for policies to be properly implemented: combining top-down and bottom-up pressure for change.

Support and community

One of the most important lessons for us from Open Contracting has been that scaling up open data initiatives is not just about standards and technical specs, but it is also about relationships, community and providing the right support at the right time.

The Open Contracting Partnership invest in bringing together champions of open contracting from across the world to get inspired and to share learning. Because they are working with common standards, ideas and tools are more easily transferable. And as I mentioned earlier, thinking about how to improve their open data also creates opportunities for groups to think about improving their internal systems and processes.

In addition, my team at Open Data Services Co-operative provide the ‘technical helpdesk’ for OCDS. We offer e-mail, phone and workshop support to governments working to publish their data, and to groups seeking to use open contracting data. Our goal is to make sure that when data is published, it is easy-to-use, and that all the small barriers to data re-use that exist for so many other datasets are not there when you come to an open contracting dataset.

We do this because data standards are only as strong as their early implementations. But we’re not aiming to be the only support provider for OCDS. In fact, we’re aiming to stimulate an ecosystem of support and data re-use.

Ecosystem

A strategic approach to problem solving with open data needs us to recognise the different roles in a data value chain. And to think about what elements need to be kept open for a vibrant ecosystem, and where to create space for proprietary business models.

If governments need consultancy support to improve their systems to produce OCDS data, and a marketplace of expert consultants develops, this is a good thing for scaling adoption. If private firms build value-added data analysis tools on top of contracting data, this is something to welcome that can scale use.

But if the originally published data is messy, and firms have to spend lots of money cleaning up the raw data before they use it, then barriers to market entry are created. This stiffles innovation, and leads to services only accessible to wealthy private sector, excluding civil society data users.

That’s why there is a need for a range of different actors, public, civil society and private, involved in a data ecosytem – and space for a range of business models.

Business models

I’ve been asked to touch in particular on business models in this talk – not least because the company I’m part of, Open Data Services Co-operative, has been exploring a different model to scale up support for open data.

We’re set up as a Workers Co-operative: a model where Latin America has a strong history. In a workers co-op, the staff own the business: and make decisions about it’s future. This might not sound that significant, but it has a number of distinction against other models:

(1) It’s a business, not a charity. This can give us the flexibility to innovate, and the drive to find sustainable models for our work. Right now, we work through a mix of contracts for technology research and development, and through providing ongoing support for data standards, often ultimately funded by donors who believe in investing in public good open data infrastructure.

(2) Organic instead of investment growth. A lot of the examples used when talking about tech businesses are born out of massive-scale silicon valley investments. Most co-operative models are based on growing through member contributions and revenue, rather than selling equity. Although we are set up as a workers co-op, there are growing discussions around ‘platform co-operatives’ and ‘data co-operatives’, in which those who could benefit from shared data infrastructure collectively support its development through a co-op model.

(3) Social mission focus. We want to provide jobs for people – particularly growing the community of professionals working on open data, as we recognise there are limited opportunities for stable open-data and social change focussed jobs. But we also want to have an impact on the world, through enabling open data-approaches to problem solving. As a worker owned business, we’re not focussed on profit for shareholders or an external owner, but on developing effective projects, and contributing to the wider community and issues we care about.

When it comes to scale, for a co-operative the question is about reaching the right scale, not about unlimited growth. That’s why as demand has been growing for support on the Open Contracting Data Standard in Latin America, we’ve been working with the Open Contracting Partnership to put out a call for a new partner organisation to take on that role – co-operating alongside Open Data Services to provide services across the region.

If anyone would like to find out more about that opportunity – please do check out the details online here.

I’m not here to argue that co-operatives are the only or the best business model for working with open data – but I do encourage you to think about the different models: from supporting individual entrepreneurs, to building open data activities into existing organisations, and supporting the emergence of co-operative groups that can catalyse a wider re-use ecosystem.

Recap

So let’s recap.

  • Open data is an approach, not an object

  • Open approaches win out over closed approaches when it comes to creating both social value, and opportunities for innovation and growth

  • But, we need to be strategic about open data: using it for problem solving, and making sure data quality and reliability is good enough for ongoing re-use

  • An we need sector-specific approaches, with a mix of different organisations involved

I’ve shared case studies of Open Referral and Open Contracting. But in other sectors the right approaches may be different.

My challenge to you is to think about you can apply values of transparency, participation and collaboration to your open data projects, and how you can act strategically to make use of standards, community engagement and support for data publishers and users in order to build vibrant ecosystems.

Open Government – Gouvernement Ouvert: Same same but different

[Summary: preliminary notes for a roundtable discussion on open government research]

I’m talking tomorrow at a workshop in Paris to explore the research agenda on Open Government. The first panel, under the title “Open Government – Gouvernement Ouvert: Same same but different?” aims to dig into the question of whether open government takes different forms in different countries and contexts.

To what extent is open government about countries moving towards some set of universal principles and practices for modern accountable and participatory governance? And to what extent is it about diverse culturally specific reforms to existing national systems of governance? We’ll be getting into these questions by looking at the open government situation in a number of different (European) countries, followed by a roundtable discussion.

The organisers have set three questions to get discussions going. I’ve jotted down the thoughts below by way of my preparation (and sharing here in the spirit of blogging things before I try and edit them too much, which means they never make it out).

Question 1: What has been done lately in the UK that could qualify as open government?

(1) Brexit and open government

It’s hard to answer this question without first considering the recent EU Referendum, and subsequent political fall-out of the Brexit vote. How does this fit into the open government landscape?

In general, democratic process, elections and referenda have fallen outside the scope of an open government agenda. These votes might be the means by which we choose the legislative branch of government, and through which mass civic input is solicited, but when it comes to open government discourse, focus has been placed firmly on the executive and administrative branch. Whether this is sustainable in future is an open question (indeed, the OGP is moving towards a greater engagement with legislatures and legislative process).

An analysis of the EU Referendum, even though it engaged more voters than the last general election in directly addressing a substantive policy issue , would find it to be far from a model of open government. The abuse of statistics by all sides during the campaign, and the lack of attention given to substantive debate, represent failures of both political integrity from campaigners, and a failure of effective scrutiny from the media.

The subsequent position of the new administration, interpreting the referendum vote without any process of dialogue with the parliament, let along the wider public, demonstrates a retreat from ideas of open government, rather than an engagement with them. Rather than addressing social divisions through dialogue, government appears to be pursuing policies that deepen them.

At the same time it is worth noting how success and failures of open government may have contributed to the referendum result. The Open Government declaration talks of harnessing new “technologies to make more information public in ways that enable people to both understand what their governments do and to influence decisions.”. When it comes to British citizens understanding the EU, it is clear that much of the information that was available was not making it through, and few felt about to influence decisions at this supranational level. However, it is also clear that where data was available, on budgets, spending, regulation and more – that information alone was not enough to lead to better informed citizens, and that simply adding data does not make for more informed debate, or more open governance.

This raises some big questions for open governance advocacy in the UK: whether future action should engage with bigger political questions of rights, representation, media ethics and political integrity? Or whether these issues are part of a separate set of agendas to revisit, rethink and revitalise our democratic systems: whilst open government should remain focussed on administrative reforms for a more efficient, effective and responsive state?

(To explore answers to these questions I would argue there is much UK open government advocates can gain from approaching the Open Government Partnership as a space to learn from countries where the rights, freedoms and values we have often taken for granted are only recently won, or are still being fought for.)

(2) From open data to data instructures

When we look at the explicit open government commitments of the UK in most recent OGP National Action Plan, it is clear that the focus is firmly on the administrative side of open government. And very much on data and technology.

Of the 13 commitments, 8 are explicitly about data – representing the strong bias towards open data that has been present throughout the UK’s engagement in the Open Government Partnership. Because the most recent National Action Plan was published at the UK Anti-Corruption Summit in May, there is also a strong emphasis on data for anti-corruption. Asides from a process commitment to ongoing dialogue with civil society in developing the action plan itself, and a focussed set of engagement plans around how private sector and civil society actors should be involved in shaping the data that government publishes, there is little in the latest NAP on participation.

What is interesting to note however, is the move away from general commitments on open data, to a much more explicit focus on specific datasets, and the idea of building data infrastructures. The commitments cover publishing data on beneficial ownership for companies bidding on UK government contracts or owning property in the UK, gathering more structured extractives industry reporting, adopting the open contracting data standard for procurement data, publishing government grants data using the 360 Giving standard, and working towards standardised elections data. I’ll return shortly to the global nature of these commitments, and the infrastructure being constructed.

Effectively implemented, disclosure of this data will qualify as open governent on the ‘output side’. However, the challenge remains to articulate in future versions of the National Action Plan the ‘input’ side for these initiatives. For example, we are, as yet, to articulate in the NAP the feedback loops through which, for example, a commitment to Open Contracting can be made not just about publishing data on contracts, but also about creating more opportunities and mechanisms for citizen engagement and oversight of contracting.

(3) Process and product

In a somewhat meta-step, the OGP National Action Plan itself is also often considered to be an interesting act of open government. Since the second NAP, there has been close engagement between officials and a civil society network to shape the plan. The plan itself was published with joint forewords from the Minister for Cabinet Office, and the Civil Society Network. This kind of ‘open policy making’ process has been explored as a template for a number of other policy areas also, although with less concrete joint outputs.

Increasingly I’m reflecting on whether to date this process has found the right balance between government and civil society collaboration on core reforms, and the risk of civil society being co-opted: securing formal practices of transparency, but doing little to translate that into accountability.

When asked ‘What has been done lately in the UK that could qualify as open government?’, I would like to be able to answer with stories of civil society actions that use transparency to call government more to account – yet I’m struggling to identify such stories to share.

Question 2: What are the main open government issues in the UK and what are their political impacts?

There are three main trends I want to focus on in addressing this second question: privatisation and private sector accountability, anti-corruption and devolution.

Privatisation and private sector accountability

Firstly, privatisation. More and more we are seeing public services contracted out to the private sector. Instead of lines of management accountability from elected officials, through administrators, to front-line staff, the relationship between governments and fron-line services has become a contractual one. This changes structures of accountability and governance. If a service is not being delivered adequately, the levers which government can pull to fix it may be constrained by the terms of a contract. That makes opening up contracts a particularly important area of open government right now.

On a related note, it is worth noting that many reforms, such as open contracting, extractives industry transparency, beneficial ownership transparency, and the emerging area of tax transparency, are not solely about holding governments to account for the use of public funds, but also extend to scrutinising the actions of the private sector, and trying to rebalance power between citizens, state and private sector.

Anti-corruption

Secondly, as noted above, under Prime Minister Cameron, the UK Government placed a strong emphasis on the anti-corruption agenda, and on open government as a key mechanism in the fight against corruption. Whether the political will to prioritise this will continue under the new administration remains to be seen. However, a number of components of an anti-corruption data infrastructure are being put in place – albeit with major gaps when it comes to lobbying transparency, or structured data on interest and asset declarations.

Devolution

Thirdly, devolution. Although it might not be evident from the current UK OGP National Action Plan, many areas of the open government agenda are devolved responsibilities. By the end of the year we hope to see separate commitments in the NAP from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland is one of the sub-national OGP pilot regions. And as more UK cities and regions get elected mayors, there is scope to build on the sub-national OGP model in future. However, with the regions of the UK controlled by different political parties, this raises interesting challenges for the open government agenda: whether it will lead to a politicisation of the agenda, or a further focus on depoliticised technical reforms is yet to be seen.

Question 3: Is there a specific UK perspective on open government?

Reading both forewords to the latest UK OGP National Action Plan, it appears to me that within the UK there are multiple perspectives on open government. Whilst the then Minister for Cabinet Office placed the empahsis on using “data to make decisions, and where a free society, free markets and the free flow of information all combine to drive our success in the 21st century”, the Civil Society forword talks of open government as a “building block for a more democratic, equal and sustainable society.”

However, when looked at alongside other OGP member nations, we can make a number of observations about UK angles on open government:

  1. The UK appears to be part of a cluster of technical advanced countries, who are making strong links between agendas for open government and agendas for technical reform inside the state.

  2. Civil Society advocacy on open government in the UK has been strongly influenced by international NGOs based in London/the UK, with a dual focus on the domestic reform, and the role of the UK as a key actor in global initiatives, such as IATI and the EITI. The government has also placed strong emphasis on international initiatives, such as beneficial ownership transparency and open contracting.

  3. This emphasis on international initiatives, and the recent link between the OGP National Action Plan and the May anti-corruption summit, has led to a particular focus on data standards and interoperability. This highlights the global component of open government: building data infrastructures that can be used to secure accountability in an era of highly mobile global finance, and in which sovereign states cannot fight corruption within their borders alone.

How this compares to the emphasis of initiatives in France, and the other countries to be considered on tomorrow panel is something I’m looking forward to exploring.

A workshop on open data for anti-corruption

Last autumn the International Open Data Charter was launched, putting forward six key principles for governments to adopt to pursue an ‘open by default’ approach to key data.

However, for the Charter to have the greatest impacts requires more than just high-level principles. As the International Open Data Conference explored last year, we need to focus on the application of open data to particular sectors to secure the greatest impact. That’s why a stream of work has been emerging to develop ‘Sector Packages’ as companion resources to the International Open Data Charter.

The first of these is focussing on anti-corruption. I’ve been supporting the Technical Working Group of the Charter to sketch a possible outline for this in this consultation document, which was shared at the G20 meeting last year. 

To build on that we’ve just launched a call for a consultant to act as co-ordinating author for the package (closing date 28th Jan – please do share!), and a few weeks back I had the chance to drop into a mini-workshop at DFID to share an update on the Charter, and talk with staff from across the organisation about potential areas that the anti-corruption package should focus on. 

Slides from the talk are below, and I’ve jotted down some brief notes from the discussions as well. 

Datasets of interest

In the session we posed the question: “What one dataset would you like to see countries publish as open data to address corruption?”

The answers highlight a range of key areas for exploration as the anti-corruption sector package is developed further. 

1) Repository of registered NGOs and their downstream partners – including details of their bank accounts, board, constitution and rules etc.

This kind of data is clearly useful to a donor wanting to understand who they are working with, or considering whether to work with potential partners. But it is also a very challenging dataset to collate and open. Firstly, many countries either lack comprehensive systems of NGO registration, or have thresholds that mean many community-level groups will be non-constituted community associations rather than formally registered organisations. Secondly, there can be risks associated with NGO registration, particularly in countries with shrinking civil society space, and where lists of organisations could be used to increase political control or restrictions on NGO activity. 

Working these issues through will require thought about where to draw the lines between open and shared data, and how organisations can pool their self-collected intelligence about partnr organisations, whilst avoiding harms, and avoiding the creation of error-prone datasets where funding isn’t approved because ‘computer says no’. 

2) Data on the whole contracting chain – particularly for large infrastructure projects.

Whilst issolated pockets of data on public contracts often exist, effort is needed to join these up, giving a view of the whole contracting chain. The Open Contracting Data Standard has been developing the technical foundations for this to happen, and work is not beginning to explore how it might be used to track the implementation of infrastructure projects. In the UK, civil society are calling for the next Open Government National Action Plan to include a committment to model contract clauses that encourage contractors to disclose key information on subcontracting arrangements, implementation milestons and the company’s beneficial owners.

3) Identifying organisations and the people involved

The challenge of identifying the organisations who are counterparty to a funding transaction or a contract is not limited to NGOs. Identifying government agencies, departments, and the key actors within them, is also important. 

Government entity identifiers is a challenge the International Aid Transparency Initiative has been grapling with for a few years now. Could the Open Data Charter process finally move forward some agreement on the core data infrastructure describing the state that is needed as a foundation for accountability and anti-corruption open data action?

4) Beneficial ownership

Benefial ownership data reveals who is ultimately in control of, and reaping the profits from, a company. The UK is due to publish an open beneficial ownership register for the first time later this year – but there is still much to do to develop common standards for joined-up data on beneficial ownership. For example, the UK register will capture ownership information in bands at 25%, 50% and 75%, where other countries are exploring either detailed ownership percentage publication, or publication using other, non-overlapping bands. Without co-ordination on interoperability, potential impacts of beneficial ownership open data may be much harder to secure. 

5) Localised datasets and public expenditure tracking data

In thinking about the ‘national datasets’ that governments could publish as part of a sector package for anti-corruption, it is also important to not lose sight of data being generated and shared at the local level. There are lots of lessons to learn from existing work on Public Expenditure Tracking which traces the disbursement of funds from national budgets, through layers of administration, down to local services like schools. With the funding flows posted on posters on the side of school buildings there is a clearer answer to the question: “What does this mean to me?”, and data is more clearly connected with local citizen empowerment. 

Where next

Look out for updates about the anti-corruption sector package on the Open Data Charter website over the first part of 2016.

Following the money: preliminary remarks on IATI Traceability

[Summary: Exploring the social and technical dynamics of aid traceability: let’s learn what we can from distributed ledgers, without thinking that all the solutions are to be found in the blockchain.]

My colleagues at Open Data Services are working at the moment on a project for UN Habitat around traceability of aid flows. With an increasing number of organisations publishing data using the International Aid Transparency Initiative data standard, and increasing amounts of government contracting and spending data available online, the theory is that it should be possible to track funding flows.

In this blog post I’ll try and think aloud about some of the opportunities and challenges for traceability.

Why follow funds?

I can envisage a number of hypothetical use cases traceability of aid.

Firstly, donors want to be able to understand where their money has gone. This is important for at least three reasons:

  1. Effectiveness & impact: knowing which projects and programmes have been the most effective;
  2. Understanding and communication: being able to see more information about the projects funded, and to present information on projects and their impacts to the public to build support for development;
  3. Addressing fraud and corruption: identifying leakage and mis-use of funds.

Traceability is important because the relationship between donor and delivery is often indirect. A grant may pass through a number of intermediary organisations before it reaches the ultimately beneficiaries. For example, a country donor may fund a multi-lateral fund, which in turn commissions an international organisation to deliver a programme, and they in turn contract with country partners, who in turn buy in provision from local providers.

Secondly, communities where projects are funded, or where funds should have been receieved, may want to trace funding upwards: understanding the actors and policy agendas affecting their communities, and identifying when funds they are entitled to have not arrived (see the investigative work of Follow The Money Nigeria for a good example of this latter use case).

Short-circuiting social systems

It is important to consider the ways in which work on the traceability of funds potentially bypasses, ‘routes around’ or disrupts* (*choose your own framing) existing funding and reporting relationships – allowing donors or communities to reach beyond intermediaries to exert such authority and power over outcomes as they can exercise.

Take the example given above. We can represent the funding flows in a diagram as below:

downwards

But there are more than one-way-flows going on here. Most of the parties involved will have some sort of reporting responsibility to those giving them funds, and so we also have a report

upwards

By the time reporting gets to the donor, it is unlikely to include much detail on the work of the local partners or providers (indeed, the multilateral, for example, may not report specifically on this project, just on the development co-operation in general). The INGO may even have very limited information about what happens just a few steps down the chain on the ground, having to trust intermediary reports.

In cases where there isn’t complete trust in this network of reporting, and clear mechanisms to ensure each party is excercising it’s responsibility to ensure the most effective, and corruption-free, use of resources by the next party down, the case for being able to see through this chain, tracing funds and having direct ability to assess impacts and risks is clearly desirable.

Yet – it also needs to be approached carefully. Each of the relationships in this funding chain is about more than just passing on some clearly defined packet of money. Each party may bring specific contextual knowledge, skills and experience. Enabling those at the top of a funding chain to leap over intermediaries doesn’t inevitably having a positive impact: particularly given what the history of development co-operative has to teach about how power dynamics and the imposition of top-down solutions can lead to substantial harms.

None of this is a case against traceability – but it is a call for consideration of the social dynamics of traceability infrastructures – and considering of how to ensure contextual knowledge is kept accessible when it becomes possible to traverse the links of a funding chain.

The co-ordination challenge of traceability

Right now, the IATI data standard has support for traceability at the project and transaction level.

  • At the project level the related-activity field can be used to indicate parent, child and co-funded activities.
  • At the transaction level, data on incoming funds can specify the activity-id used by the upstream organisation to identify the project the funds come from, and data on outgoing funds can specify the activity-id used by the downstream organisation.

This supports both upwards and downwards linking (e.g. a funder can publish the identified of the funded project, or a receipient can publish the identifier of the donor project that is providing funds), but is based on explicit co-ordination and the capture of additional data.

As a distributed approach to the publication of open data, there are no consistency checks in IATI to ensure that providers and recipients agree on identifiers, and often there can be practical challenges to capture this data, not least that:

  • A) Many of the accounting systems in which transaction data is captured have no fields for upstream or downstream project identifier, nor any way of conceptually linking transactions to these externally defined projects;
  • B) Some parties in the funding chain may not publish IATI data, or may do so in forms that do not support traceability, breaking the chain;
  • C) The identifier of a downstream project may not be created at the time an upstream project assigns funds – exchanging identifiers can create a substantial administrative burden;

At the last IATI TAG meeting in Ottawa, this led to some discussion of other technologies that might be explored to address issues of traceability.

Technical utopias and practical traceability

Let’s start with a number of assorted observations:

  • UPS can track a package right around the world, giving me regular updates on where it is. The package has a barcode on, and is being transferred by a single company.
  • I can make a faster-payments bank transfer in the UK with a reference number that appears in both my bank statements, and the receipients statements, travelling between banks in seconds. Banks leverage their trust, and use centralised third-party providers as part of data exchange and reconciling funding transfers.
  • When making some international transfers, the money has effectively disappeared from view for quite a while, with lots of time spent on the phone to sender, recipient and intermediary banks to track down the funds. Trust, digital systems and reconciliation services function less well across international borders.
  • Transactions on the BitCoin Blockchain are, to some extent, traceable. BitCoin is a distributed system. (Given any BitCoin ‘address’ it’s possible to go back into the public ledger and see which addresses have transferred an amount of bitcoins there, and to follow the chain onwards. If you can match an address to an identity, the currency, far from being anonymous, is fairly transparent*. This is the reason for BitCoin mixer services, designed to remove the trackability of coins.)
  • There are reported experiments with using BlockChain technologies in a range of different settings, incuding for land registries.
  • There’s a lot of investment going into FinTech right now – exploring ways to update financial services

All of this can lead to some excitement about the potential of new technologies to render funding flows traceable. If we can trace parcels and BitCoins, the argument goes, why can’t we have traceability of public funds and development assistance?

Although I think such an argument falls down in a number of key areas (which I’ll get to in a moment), it does point towards a key component missing from the current aid transparency landscape – in the form of a shared ledger.

One of the reasons IATI is based on a distributed data publishing model, without any internal consistency checks between publishers, is prior experience in the sector of submitting data to centralised aid databases. However, peer-to-peer and block-chain like technologies now offer a way to separate out co-ordination and the creation of consensus on the state of the world, from the centralisation of data in a single database.

It is at least theoretically possible to imagine a world in which the data a government publishes about it’s transactions is only considered part of the story, and in which the recipient needs to confirm receipt in a public ledger to complete the transactional record. Transactions ultimately have two parts (sending and receipt), and open (distributed) ledger systems could offer the ability to layer an auditable record on top of the actual transfer of funds.

However (as I said, there are some serious limitations here), such a system is only an account giving of the funding flows, not the flows themself (unlike BitCoin) which still leaves space for corruption through maintaining false information in the ledger. Although trusted financial intermediaries (banks and others) could be brought into the picture, as others responsible for confirming transactions, it’s hard to envisage how adoption of such a system could be brought about over the short and medium term (particularly globally). Secondly, although transactions between organisations might be made more visible and traceable in this way, the transactions inside an organisation remain opaque. Working out which funds relate to which internal and external projects is still a matter of the internal businesses processes in organisations involved in the aid delivery chain.

There may be other traceability systems we should be exploring as inspirations for aid and public money traceable. What my brief look at BitCoin leads me to reflect on is potential role over the short-term of reconciliation services that can, at the very least, report on the extent to which different IATI publisers are mutually confirming each others information. Over the long-term, a move towards more real-time transparency infrastructures, rather than periodic data publication, might open up new opportunities – although with all sorts of associated challenges.

Ultimately – creating traceable aid still requires labour to generate shared conceptual understandings of how particular transactions and projects relate.

How much is enough?

Let’s loop back round. In this post (as in many of the conversations I’ve had about traceable), we started with some use cases for traceability; we saw some of the challenges; we got briefly excited about what new technologies could do to provide traceability; we saw the opportunities, but also the many limitations. Where do we end up then?

I think important is to loop back to our use cases, and to consider how technology can help but not completely solve, the problems set out. Knowing which provider organisations might have been funded through a particular donors money could be enough to help them target investigations in cases of fraud. Or knowing all the funders who have a stake in projects in a particular country, sector and locality can be enough for communities on the ground to do further research to identify the funders they need to talk to.

Rather than searching after a traceability data panopticon, can we focus traceability-enabling practices on breaking down the barriers to specific investigatory processes?

Ultimately, in the IATI case, getting traceability to work at the project level alone could be a big boost. But doing this will require a lot of social coordination, as much as technical innovation. As we think about tools for traceability, thinking about tools that support this social process may be an important area to focus on.

Where next

Steven Flower and the rest of the Open Data Services team will be working on coming weeks on a deeper investigation of traceability issues – with the goal of producing a report and toolkit later this year. They’ve already been digging into IATI data to look for the links that exist so far and building on past work testing the concept of traceability against real data.

Drop in comments below, or drop Steven a line, if you have ideas to share.

Three cross-cutting issues that UK data sharing proposals should address

[Summary: an extended discussion of issue arising from today’s discussion of UK data sharing open policymaking discussions]

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about open data. But, as has often been said, not all of the data that government holds should be published as open data.

Certain registers and datasets managed by the state may contain, or be used to reveal, personally identifying and private information – justifying strong restrictions on how they are accessed and used. Many of the datasets governments collect, from tax records to detailed survey data collected for policy making and monitoring fall into this category. However, the principle that data collected for one purpose might have a legitimate use in another context still applies to this data: one government department may be able to pursue it’s public task with data from another, and there are cases where public benefit is to be found from sharing data with academic and private sector researchers and innovators.

However, in the UK, the picture of which departments, agencies and levels of government can share which data with others (or outside of the state) is complex to say the least. When it comes to sharing personally identifying datasets, agencies need to rely on specific ‘legal gateways’, with certain major data holders such as HM Revenue and Customs bound by restrictive rules that may require explicit legislation to pass through parliament before specific data shares are permitted.

That’s ostensibly why the UK Government has been working for a number of years now on bringing forward new data sharing proposals – creating ‘permissive powers’ for cross-departmental and cross-agency data sharing, increasing the ease of data flows between national and local government, whilst increasing the clarity of safeguards against data mis-use. Up until just before the last election, an Open Policy Making process, modelled broadly on the UK Open Government Partnership process was taking place – resulting in a refined set of potential proposals relating to identifiable data sharing, data sharing for fraud reduction, and use of data for targeted public services. Today that process was re-started, with a view to a public consultation on updated proposals in the coming months.

However, although much progress has been made in refining proposals based on private sector and civil society feedback, from the range of specific and somewhat disjointed proposals presented for new arrangements in today’s workshop, it appears the process is a way off from providing the kinds of clarification of the current regime that might be desirable. Missing from today’s discussions were clear cross-cutting mechanisms to build trust in government data sharing, and establish the kind of secure data infrastructures that are needed for handling personal data sharing.

I want to suggest three areas that need to be more clearly addressed – all of which were raised in the 2014/15 Open Policymaking process, but which have been somewhat lost in the latest iterations of discussion.

1. Maximising impact, minimising the data shared

One of the most compelling cases for data sharing presented in today’s workshop was work to address fuel poverty by automatically giving low-income pensioners rebates on their fuel bills. Discussions suggested that since the automatic rebate was introduced, 50% more eligible recipients are getting the rebates – with the most vulnerable who were far less likely to apply to recieve the rebates they were entitied to the biggest beneficiaries. With every degree drop in the temperature of a pensioners home correlating to increased hospital admissions – then the argument for allowing the data share, and indeed establishing the framework for current arrangements to be extended to others in fuel poverty (the current powers are specific to pensioners data in some way), is clear.

However, this case is also one where the impact is accompanied by a process that results in minimal data actually being shared from government to the private companies who apply the rebates to individuals energy bills. All that is shared in response to energy companies queries for each candidate on their customer list is a flag for whether the individual is eligible for the rebate or not.

This kind of approach does not require the sharing of a bulk dataset of personally identifying information – it requires a transactional service that can provide the minimum certification required to indicate, with some reasonable level of confidence, that an individual has some relevant credentials. The idea of privacy protecting identity services which operate in this way is not new – yet the framing of the current data sharing discussion has tended to focus on ‘sharing datasets’ instead of constructing processes and technical systems which can be well governed, and still meet the vast majority of use-cases where data shares may be required.

For example, when the General Records Office representative today posed the question of “In what circumstances would it be approciate to share civil registration data (e.g. Birth, Adoption, Marriage and Death) information?”, the use-cases that surfaced were all to do with verification of identity: something that could be achieved much more safely by providing a digital service than by handing over datasets in bulk.

Indeed, approached as a question of systems design, rather than data sharing, the fight against fraud may in practice be better served by allowing citizens to digitally access their own civil registration information and to submit that as evidence in their transactions with government, helping narrow the number of cases where fraud may be occurring – and focussing investigative efforts more tightly, instead of chasing after problematic big data analysis approaches.

(Aside #1: As one participant in today’s workshop insightfully noted, there are thousands of valid marriages in the UK which are not civil marriages and so may not be present in Civil Registers. A big data approach that seeks to match records of who is married to records of households who have declared they are married, to identify fraudulent claims, is likely to flag these households wrongly, creating new forms of discrimination. By contrast, an approach that helps individuals submit their evidence to government allows such ‘edge cases’ to be factored in – recognising that many ‘facts’ about citizens are not easily reduced to simple database fields, and that giving account of ones self to the state is a performative act which should not be too readily sidelined.)

(Aside #2: The case of civil registers also illustrates an interesting and significant qualitative difference between public records, and a bulk public dataset. Births, marriages and deaths are all ‘public events’: there is no right to keep them private, and they have long been recorded in registers which are open to inspection. However, when the model of access to these registers switches from the focussed inspection, looking for a particular individual, to bulk access, they become possible to use in new ways – for example, creating a ‘primary key’ of individuals to which other data can be attached, eroding privacy in ways which was not possible when each record needed to be explored individually. The balance of benefits and harms from this qualitative change will vary from dataset to dataset. For example, I would strongly advocate the open sharing of company registers, including details of beneficial owners, both because of the public benefit of this data, and because registering a company is a public act involving a certain social contract. By contrast, I would be more cautious about the full disclosure of all civil registers, due to the different nature of the social contract involved, and the greater risk of vulnerable individuals being targetted through intentional or unintentional misuse of the data.)

All of which is a long way to say:

  • Where the cross-agency or cross-departmental use-cases for access to a particular can be reduced to sharing assertions about individuals, rather than bulk datasets, this route should be explored first.

This does not remove the need for governance of both access and data use. However, it does ease the governance of access, and audit logs of access to a service are easier to manage than audit logs of what users in possession of a dataset have done.

Even the sharing of a ‘flag’ that can be applied to an individuals data record needs careful thought: and those in receipt of such flags need to ensure they govern the use of that data carefully. For example, as one participant today noted, pensioners have raised fears that energy companies may use a ‘fuel poverty’ flag in their records to target them with advertising. Ensuring that later analysts in the company do not stumble upon the rebate figures in invoices, and feed this into profiling of customers, for example, will require very careful data governance – and it is not clear that companies practices are robust enough to protect against this right now.

2. Algorithmic transparency

Last year the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition produced a great little zine called ‘Opening Data’ which takes a practical look at some of the opportunities and challenges of open data use. They look at how data is used to profile communities, and how the classifications and clustering approaches applied to data can create categories that may be skewed and biased against particular groups, or that reinforce rather than challenge social divides (see pg 30 onwards). The same issues apply to data sharing.

Whilst current data protection legislation gives citizens a right to access and correct information about themselves, the algorithms used to process that data, and derive analysis from it are rarely shared or open to adequate scrutiny.

In the process of establishing new frameworks for data sharing, the algorithms used to process that data should be being brough in view as much as the datasets themselves.

If, for example, someone is offered a targetted public service, or targetted in a fraud investigation, there is question to be explored of whether they should be told which datasets, and which algorithms, led to them being selected. This, and associated transparency, could help to surface otherwise unseen biases which might otherwise lead to particular groups being unfairly targetted (or missed) by analysis. Transparency is no panacea, but it plays an important role as a safeguard.

3. Systematic transparency of sharing arrangements

On the theme of transparency, many of the proposals discussed today mentioned oversight groups, Privacy Impact Assessments, and publication of information on either those in receipt of shared data, or those refused access to datasets – yet across the piece no systematic framework for this was put forward.

This is an issue Reuben Binns and I wrote about in 2014, putting forward a proposal for a common standard for disclosure of data sharing arrangements that, in it’s strongest form would require:

  • Structured data on origin, destination, purpose, legal framework and timescales for sharing;
  • Publication of Privacy Impact Assessments and other associated documents;
  • Notices published through a common venue (such as the Gazette) in a timely fashion;
  • Consultation windows where relevant before a power comes into force;
  • Sharing to only be legally valid when the notice has been published.

Without such a framework, we are likely to end up with the current confused system in which no-one knows which shares are in place, how they are being used, and which legal gateways are functioning well or not. With a scattered set of spreadsheets and web pages listing approved sharing, citizens have no hope of understanding how their data is being used.

If only one of the above issues could be addressed in the upcoming consultation on data sharing, then I certainly hope progress could be made on addressing this missing piece of a robust common framework for the transparency principles of data sharing to be put into practice.

Towards a well governed infrastructure?

Ultimately, the discussion of data sharing is a discussion about one aspect of our national data infrastructure. There has been a lot of smart work going on, both inside and outside government, on issues such as identity assurance, differential privacy, and identifying core derived datasets which should be available as open data to bypass need for sharing gateways. A truly effective data sharing agenda needs to link with these to ensure it is neither creating over-broad powers which are open to abuse, nor establishing a new web of complex and hard to operate gateways.

Further reading

My thinking on these issues has been shaped in part by inputs from the following:

Data & Discrimination – Collected Essays

White House Report on Big Data, and associated papers/notes from The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data.” conference

Unpacking open data: power, politics and the influence of infrastructures

[Summary: recording of Berkman Centre Lunch Talk on open data]

Much belatedly, below you will find the video from the Berkman Centre Talk I gave late last year on ‘Unpacking open data: power, politics and the influence of infrastructures

You can find a live-blog of the talk from Matt Stempeck and Erhardt Graff over on the MIT Media Lab blog, and Willow Brugh drew the fantastic visual record of themes in the talk shown below:

Unpacking_open_data

The slides are also up on Slideshare here.

I’m now in the midst of trying to make more sense of the themes in this talk whilst in the writing up stage for my PhD… and much of the feedback I had from the talk has been incredibly valuable in that – so comments are always welcome.

Do we need eligibility criteria for private sector involvement in OGP?

I’ve been in Costa Rica for the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Latin America Regional Meeting (where we were launching the Open Contracting Data Standard), and on Tuesday attended a session around private sector involvement in the OGP.

The OGP was always envisaged as a ‘multi-stakeholder forum’ – not only for civil society and governments, but also to include the private sector. But, as Martin Tisne noted in opening the session, private sector involvement has so far been limited – although an OGP Private Sector Council is currently developing.

In his remarks (building on notes from 2013), Martin outlined six different roles for the private sector in open government, including:

  1. Firms as mediators of open government data – making governance related public data more accessible;
  2. Firms as beneficiaries and users of open data – building businesses of data releases, and fostering demand for, and sustainable supply of, open data;
  3. Firms as anti-corruption advocates – particularly rating agencies whose judgements on risk of investment in a country as a result of poor governance environments can strongly incentivise governments to institute reforms;
  4. Firms practising corporate accountability – including by being transparent about their own activities.
  5. Technology firms providing platforms for citizen-state interaction – from large platforms like Facebook which have played a role in democracy movements, to specifically civic private-sector provided platforms like change.org or SeeClickFix.
  6. Companies providing technical assistance and advice to governments on their OGP action plans.

The discussion panel then went on to look at a number of examples of private sector involvement in open government, ranging from Chambers of Commerce acting as advocates for anti-corruption and governance reforms, to large firms like IBM providing software and staff time to efforts to meet the challenge of Ebola through data-driven projects. A clear theme in the discussion was the need to recognise that, like government and civil society, the private sector is not monolithic. Indeed, I have to remember that I’ve participated in the UK OGP process as a result of being able to subsidise my time via Practical Participation Ltd.

Reflecting on public and private interests

Regardless of the positive contributions and points made by all the panelists in the session, I do find myself approaching the general concept of private sector engagement with OGP with a constructive scepticism, and one that I hope supports wider reflections about the role and accountability of all stakeholders in the process. Many of these reflections are driven by a concern about the relative power of different stakeholders in these processes, and the fact that, in a world where the state is often in retreat, civil society spread increasingly thin, and wealth accumulated in vastly uneven ways, ensuring a fair process of multi-stakeholder dialogue requires careful institutional design. In light of the uneven flow of resources in our world, these reflections also draw on an important distinction between public and private interest.

Whilst there are institutional mechanisms in place (albeit flawed in many cases) that mean both government and non-profits should operate in the public interest, the essential logic of the private sector is to act in private interest. Of course, the extent of this logic varies by type of firm, but large multi-nationals have legal obligations to their shareholders which can, at least when shareholders are focussed on short-term returns, create direct tensions with responsible corporate behaviour. This is relevant for OGP in at least two ways:

Firstly, when private firms are active contributors to open government activities, whether mediating public data, providing humanitarian interventions, offering platforms for citizen interaction, or providing technical assistance, mechanisms are needed in a public interest forum such as the OGP to ensure that such private sector interventions provide a net gain to the public good.

Take for example a private firm that offers hardware or software to a government for free to support it in implementing an open government project. If the project has a reasonable chance of success, this can be a positive contribution to the public good. However, if the motivation for the project comes from private rather than a public interest, and leads to a government being locked into future use of a proprietary software platform, or to an ongoing relationship with the company who have gained special access as a result of their ‘CSR’ support for the open government project – then it is possible for the net-result to be against the public interest.

It should be possible to establish governance mechanisms that address these concerns, and allow the genuine public interest, and win-win contributions of the private sector to open government and development to be facilitated, whilst establishing checks against abuse of the power imbalance, whether due to relative wealth, scale or technical know-how, that can exist between firms and states.

Secondly, corporate contributions to aspects of the OGP agenda should not distract from a focus on key issues of large-scale corporate behaviour that undermine the capacity and effectiveness of governments, such as the use of complex tax avoidance schemes, or the exploitation of workforces and suppression of wages such that citizens have little time or energy left after achieving the essentials of daily living to give to civic engagement.

A proposal

In Tuesday’s session these reflections led me towards thinking about whether the Open Government Partnership should have some form of eligibility criteria for corporate participants, as a partial parallel to those that exist for states. To keep this practical and relevant, they could relate to the existence of key disclosures by the firm for all the settings they operate in: such as disclosure of amount of tax paid, the beneficial owners of the firm, and of the amount of funding the firm is putting towards engagement in the OGP process.

Such requirements need not necessarily operate in an entirely gatekeeping fashion (i.e. it should not be that participants cannot engage at all without such disclosures), but could be instituted initially as a recommended transparency practice, creating space for social pressures to encourage compliance, and giving extra information to those considering the legitimacy of, and weight to give to, the contributions of corporate participants within the OGP process.

As noted earlier, these critical reflection might also be extended to civil society participants: there can also be legitimate concerns about the interests being represented through the work of CSOs. The Who Funds You campaign is a useful point of reference here: CSO participants could be encouraged to disclosure information on who is funding their work, and again, how much resource they are dedicating to OGP work.

Conclusions

This post provides some initial reflections as a discussion starter. The purpose is not to argue against private sector involvement in OGP – but is to, in engaging proactively with a multi-stakeholder model, to raise the need for critical thinking in the open government debate not only about the transparency and accountability of governments, but also about the transparency and accountability of other parties who are engaged.

OCDS – Notes on a standard

logo-open-contracting Today sees the launch of the first release of the Open Contracting Data Standard (OCDS). The standard, as I’ve written before, brings together concrete guidance on the kinds of documents and data that are needed for increased transparency in processes of public contracting, with a technical specification describing how to represent contract data and meta-data in common ways.

The video below provides a brief overview of how it works (or you can read the briefing note), and you can find full documentation at http://standard.open-contracting.org.

When I first jotted down a few notes on how to go forward from the rapid prototype I worked on with Sarah Bird in 2012, I didn’t realise we would actually end up with the opportunity to put some of those ideas into practice. However: we did – and so in this post I wanted to reflect on some aspects of the standard we’ve arrived at, some of the learning from the process, and a few of the ideas that have guided at least my inputs into the development process.

As, hopefully, others pick up and draw upon the initial work we’ve done (in addition to the great inputs we’ve had already), I’m certain there will be much more learning to capture.

(1) Foundations for ‘open by default’

Early open data advocacy called for ‘raw data now‘, asking for governments to essentially export and dump online existing datasets, with issues of structure and regular publishing processes to be sorted out later. Yet, as open data matures, the discussion is shifting to the idea of ‘open by default’, and taken seriously this means more than just data dumps that are created being openly licensed as the default position, but should mean that data is released from government systems as a matter of course in part of their day-to-day operation.

green_compilation.svgThe full OCDS model is designed to support this kind of ‘open by default’, allowing publishers to provide small releases of data every time some event occurs in the lifetime of a contracting process. A new tender is a release. An amendment to that tender is a release. The contract being awarded, or then signed, are each releases. These data releases are tied together by a common identifier, and can be combined into a summary record, providing a snapshot view of the state of a contracting process, and a history of how it has developed over time.

This releases and records model seeks to combine together different user needs: from the firm seeking information about tender opportunities, to the civil society organisation wishing to analyse across a wide range of contracting processes. And by allowing core stages in the business process of contracting to be published as they happen, and then joined up later, it is oriented towards the development of contracting systems that default to timely openness.

As I’ll be exploring in my talk at the Berkman Centre next week, the challenge ahead for open data is not just to find standards to make existing datasets line-up when they get dumped online, but is to envisage and co-design new infrastructures for everyday transparent, effective and accountable processes of government and governance.

(2) Not your minimum viable product

Different models of standard

Many open data standard projects adopt either a ‘Minimum Viable Product‘ approach, looking to capture only the few most common fields between publishers, or are developed through focussing on the concerns of a single publisher or users. Whilst MVP models may make sense for small building blocks designed to fit into other standardisation efforts, when it came to OCDS there was a clear user demand to link up data along the contracting process, and this required an overarching framework from into which simple component could be placed, or from which they could be extracted, rather than the creation of ad-hoc components, with the attempt to join them up made later on.

Whilst we didn’t quite achieve the full abstract model + idiomatic serialisations proposed in the initial technical architecture sketch, we have ended up with a core schema, and then suggested ways to represent this data in both structured and flat formats. This is already proving useful for example in exploring how data published as part of the UK Local Government Transparency Code might be mapped to OCDS from existing CSV schemas.

(3) The interop balancing act & keeping flex in the framework

OCDS is, ultimately, not a small standard. It seeks to describe the whole of a contracting process, from planning, through tender, to contract award, signed contract, and project implementation. And at each stage it provides space for capturing detailed information, linking to documents, tracking milestones and tracking values and line-items.

This shape of the specification is a direct consequence of the method adopted to develop it: looking at a diverse set of existing data, and spending time exploring the data that different users wanted, as well as looking at other existing standards and data specifications.

However, OCDS by not means covers all the things that publishers might want to state about contracting, nor all the things users may want to know. Instead, it focusses on achieving interoperability of data in a number of key areas, and then providing a framework into which extensions can be linked as the needs of different sub-communities of open data users arise.

We’re only in the early stages of thinking about how extensions to the standard will work, but I suspect they will turn out to be an important aspect: allowing different groups to come together to agree (or contest) the extra elements that are important to share in a particular country, sector or context. Over time, some may move into the core of the standard, and potentially elements that appear core right now might move into the realm of extensions, each able to have their own governance processes if appropriate.

As Urs Gasser and John Palfrey note in their work on Interop, the key in building towards interoperability is not to make everything standardised and interoperable, but is to work out the ways in which things should be made compatible, and the ways in which they should not. Forcing everything into a common mould removes the diversity of the real world, yet leaving everything underspecified means no possibility to connect data up. This is both a question of the standards, and the pressures that shape how they are adopted.

(4) Avoiding identity crisis

green_organisation.svgData describes things. To be described, those things need to be identified. When describing data on the web, it helps if those things can be unambiguously identified and distinguished from other things which might have the same names or identification numbers. This generally requires the use of globally unique identifiers (guid): some value which, in a universe of all available contracting data, for example, picks out a unique contracting process; or, in the universe of all organizations, uniquely identifies a specific organization. However, providing these identifiers can turn out to be both a politically and technically challenging process.

The Open Data Institute have recently published a report on the importance of identifiers that underlines how important identifiers are to processes of opening data. Yet, consistent identifiers often have key properties of public goods: everyone benefits from having them, but providing and maintaining them has some costs attached, which no individual identifier user has an incentive to cover. In some cases, such as goods and service identifiers, projects have emerged which take a proprietary approach to fund the maintenance of those identifiers, selling access to the lookup lists which match the codes for describing goods and services to their descriptions. This clearly raises challenges for an open standard, as when proprietary identifiers are incorporated into data, then users may face extra costs to interpret and make sense of data.

In OCDS we’ve sought to take as distributed an approach to identifiers as possible, only requiring globally unique identifiers where absolutely necessary (identifying contracts, organizations and goods and services), and deferring to existing registration agencies and identity providers, with OCDS maintaining, at most, code lists for referring to each identity ‘scheme’.

In some cases, we’ve split the ‘scheme’ out into a separate field: for example, an organization identifier consists of a scheme field with a value like ‘GB-COH’ to stand for UK Companies House, and then the identifier given in that scheme, like ‘5381958’. This approach allows people to store those identifiers in their existing systems without change (existing databases might hold national company numbers, with the field assumed to come from a particular register), whilst making explicit the scheme they come from in the OCDS. In other cases, however, we look to create new composite string identifiers, combining a prefix, and some identifier drawn from an organizations internal system. This is particularly the case for the Open Contracting ID (ocid). By doing this, the identifier can travel between systems more easily as a guid – and could even be incorporated in unstructured data as a key for locating documents and resources related to a given contracting process.

However, recent learning from the project is showing that many organisations are hesistant about the introduction of new IDs, and that adoption of an identifier schema may require as much advocacy as adoption of a standard. At a policy level, bringing some external convention for identifying things into a dataset appears to be seen as affecting the, for want of a better word, sovereignty of a specific dataset: even if in practice the prefix approach of the ocid means it only need to be hard coded in the systems that expose data to the world, not necessarily stored inside organizations databases. However, this is an area I suspect we will need to explore more, and keep tracking, as OCDS adoption moves forward.

(5) Bridging communities of practice

If you look closely you might in fact notice that the specification just launched in Costa Rica is actually labelled as a ‘release candidate‘. This points to another key element of learning in the project, concerning the different processes and timelines of policy and technical standardisation. In the world of funded projects and policy processes, deadlines are often fixed, and the project plan has to work backwards from there. In a technical standardisation process, there is no ‘standard’ until a specification is in use: and has been robustly tested. The processes for adopting a policy standard, and setting a technical one, differ – and whilst perhaps we should have spoken from the start of the project of an overall standard, embedding within it a technical specification, we were too far down the path towards the policy launch before this point. As a result, the Release Candidate designation is intended to suggest the specification is ready to draw upon, but that there is still a process to go (and future governance arrangements to be defined) before it can be adopted as a standard per-se.

(6) The schema is just the start of it

This leads to the most important point: that launching the schemas and specification is just one part of delivering the standard.

In a recent e-mail conversation with Greg Bloom about elements of standardisation, linked to the development of the Open Referral standard, Greg put forward a list of components that may be involved in delivering a sustainable standards project, including:

  • The specification – with its various components and subcomponents);
  • Tools that assesses compliance according to the spec (e.g. validation tools, and more advanced assessment tools);
  • Some means of visualizing a given set of data’s level of compliance;
  • Incentives of some kind (whether positive or negative) for attaining various levels of compliance;
  • Processes for governing all of the above;
  • and of course the community through which all of this emerges and sustains;

To this we might also add elements like documentation and tutorials, support for publishers, catalysing work with tool builders, guidance for users, and so-on.

Open government standards are not something to be published once, and then left, but require labour to develop and sustain, and involve many social processes as much as technical ones.

In many ways, although we’ve spent a year of small development iterations working towards this OCDS release, the work now is only just getting started, and there are many technical, community and capacity-building challenges ahead for the Open Contracting Partnership and others in the open contracting movement.

Exploring Wikidata

WikiData[Summary: thinking aloud – brief notes on learning about the wikidata project, and how it might help addressing the organisational identifiers problem]

I’ve spent a fascinating day today at the Wikimania Conference at the Barbican in London, mostly following the programmes ‘data’ track in order to understand in more depth the Wikidata project. This post shares some thinking aloud to capture some learning, reflections and exploration from the day.

As the Wikidata project manager, Lydia Pintscher, framed it, right now access to knowledge on wikipedia is highly skewed by language. The topics of articles you have access to, the depth of meta-data about them (such as the locations they describe), and the detail of those articles, and their liklihood of being up to date, is greatly affected by the language you speak. Italian or Greek wikipedia may have great coverage of places in Italy or Greece, but go wider and their coverage drops off. In terms of seeking more equal access to knowledge, this is a problem. However, whilst the encyclopedic narrative of a French, Spanish of Catalan page about the Barbican Center in London will need to be written by someone in command of that language, many of the basic facts that go into an article are language-neutral, or translatable as small units of content, rather than sentences and paragraphs. The date the building was built, the name of the architect, the current capacity of the building – all the kinds of things which might appear in infoboxes – are all things that could be made available to bootstrap new articles, or that, when changed, could have their changes cascaded across all the different language pages that draw upon them.

That is one of the motivating cases for Wikidata: separating out ‘items’ and their ‘properties’ that might belong in Wikipedia from the pages, making this data re-usable, and using it to build a better encyclopedia.

However, wikidata is also generating much wider interest – not least because it is taking on a number of problems that many people want to see addressed. These include:

  • Somewhere ‘institutional’ and well governed on the web to put data – and where each data item also gains the advantage of a discussion page.
  • The long-term preservation, and versioning, of data;
  • Providing common identifiers on the web for arbitrary things – and providing URIs for these things that can be looked up (building on the idea of DBPedia as a crystalisation point for the web of linked data);
  • Providing a data model that can cope with change over time, and with data from heterogenous sources – all of the properties in wikidata can have qualifiers, such as when the statement is true from, or until, source information, and other provenance data.

Wikidata could help address these issues on two levels:

  • By allowing anyone to add items and properties to the central wikidata instance, and making these available for re-use;
  • By providing an open source software platform for anyone to use in managing their own corpus of wikified, versioned data*;

A particular use case I’m interested in is whether it might help in addressing the perenial Organisational Identifiers problem faced by data standards such as IATI and Open Contracting, where it turns out that having shared identifiers for government agencies, and lots of existing, but non-registered, entities like charities and associations that give and recieve funds, is really difficult. Others at Wikimania spoke of potential use cases around maintaining national statistics, and archiving the datasets underlying scientific publications.

However, in thinking about the use cases wikidata might have, its important to keep in mind it’s current scope:

  • It is a store of ‘items’ and then ‘statements’ about them (essentially a graph store). This is different from being a place to store datasets (as you might want to do with the archival of the dataset used in a scientific paper), and it means that, once created, items are the first class entities of wikidata, able to exist in multiple collection.
  • It currently inherits Wikipedia’s notability criteria for items. That is, the basic building blocks of wikidata – the items that can be identified and described, such as the Barbican, Cheese or Government of Grenada – can only be included in the main wikidata instance if they have a corresponding wikipedia page in some language wikipedia (or similar: this requirement is a little more complex).
  • It can be edited by anyone, at any time. That is, systems that rely on the data need to consider what levels of consistence they need. Of course, as wikipedia has shown, editability is often a great strength – and as Rufus Pollock noted in the ‘data roundtable’ session, updating and versioning of open data are currently big missing parts of our data infrastructures.

Unlike the entirely distributed open world assumption on the web of data, where the AAA assumption holds (Anyone can say Anything about Anything), wikidata brings both a layer of regulation to the statements that can be made, and the potential of community driven editorial control. It sits somewhere between the controlled description sets of Schema.org, and an entirely open proliferation of items and ontologies to describe them.

Can it help the organisational identifiers problem?

I’ve started to carry out some quick tests to see how far wikidata might be a resource to help with the aforementioned organisational identifiers problem.

Using Kasper Brandt‘s fantastically useful linked data rendering of IATI, I queried for the names of a selection of government and non-government organisations occurring in the International Aid Transparency Initiative data. I then used Open Refine to look up a selection of these on the DBPedia endpoint (which it seems now incorporates wikidata info as well). This was very rough-and-ready (just searching for full name matches), but by cross-checking negative results (where there were no matches) by searching wikipedia manually, it’s possible to get a sense of how many organisations might be identifiable within Wikipedia.

So far I’ve only tested the method, and haven’t run a large scale test – but I found around 1/2 the organisations I checked had a Wikipedia entry of some form, and thus would currently be eligible to be Wikidata items right away. For others, Wikipedia pages would need to be created, and whether or not all the small voluntary organisations that might occur in an IATI or Open Contracting dataset would be notable for inclusion is something that would need to be explored more.

Exploring the Wikidata pages for some of the organisations I did find threw up some interesting additional possibilities to help with organisation identifiers. A number of pages were linked to identifiers from Library Authority Files, including VIAF identifiers such as this set of examples returned for a search on Malawi Ministry of Finance. Library Authority Files would tend to only include entries when a government agency has a publication of some form in that library, but at a quick glance coverage seems pretty good.

Now, as Chris Taggart would be quick to point out, neither wikipedia pages, nor library authority file identifiers, act as a registry of legal entities. They pick out everyday concepts of an organisation, rather than the legally accountably body which enters into contracts. Yet, as they become increasingly backed by data, these identifiers do provide access to look up lots of contextual information that might help in understanding issues like organisational change over time. For example, the Wikipedia page for the UK’s Department for Education includes details on the departments that preceeded it. In wikidata form, a statement like this could even be qualified to say if that relationship of being a preceeding department is one that passes legal obligations from one to the other.

I’ve still got to think about this a lot more, but it seems that:

  • There are many things it might be useful to know about organisations, but which are not going to be captured in official registries anytime soon. Some of these things will need to be subject of discussion, and open to agreement through dialogue. Wikidata, as a trusted shared space with good community governance practices might be a good place to keep these things, albeit recognising that in its current phase it has no goal of being a comprehensive repository of records about all organisations in the world (and other spaces such as Open Corporates are already solving the comprehensive coverage problem for particular classes of organiastion).

  • There are some organisations for which, in many countries, no official registry exists (particularly Government Departments and Agencies). Many of these things are notable (Government Departments for example), and so even if no Wikipedia entry yet exists, one could and should. A project to manage and maintain government agency records and identifiers in Wikidata may be worth exploring.

Whether a shift from seeking to solve some aspects of the organisational identifiers problem through finding some authority to provide master lists, to developing a distributed best-efforts community approach is one that would make sense to the open government community is something yet to be explored.

Notes

*I here acknowledge SJ Klein‘s counsel was that this (encouraging multiple domain specific instances of a wikidata platform) is potentially a very bad idea, as the ‘forking’ of wiki-projects has rarely been a successful journey: particularly with respect to the sustainability of forked content. As SJ outlined, even though there may be technical and social challenges to a mega graph store, these could be compared to the apparant challenges of making the first encyclopedias (the idea of 50,000 page book must have seemed crazy at first), or the social challenges envisioned to Wikipedia at its genesis (‘how could non-experts possible edit an enecylopedia?’). On this view, it is only by setting the ambition of a comprehensive shared store of the worlds propositional data (with the qualifiers that Wikidata supports to make this possible without a closed world assumption) that such limits might be overcome. Perhaps with data there is a greater possibility to support forking, and remerging, of wikidata instances, permitting short-term pragmatic creation of datasets outside the core wikidata project, which can later be brought back in if they are considered, as a set, notable (although this still carries risks that forked projects diverge in their values, governance and structure so far that re-connecting later is made prohibitively difficult).

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 (data.gov.uk lists unpublished datasets from many central government departments) and legislation (through the data-all-the-way down approach of legislation.gov.uk).
  • 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.