Guest post from Alberto Ortiz de Zárate Tercero
Founder and CEO of Alorza.net and World Bank’s senior specialist in open government. In the Open Data sphere, he has managed projects for the World Bank at Peru, the Dominican Republic, Jalisco and Colombia. As a citizen services director for the Basque Government, he launched Open Data Euskadi, the first non-English speaking open data initiative in the world. Lecturer, teacher and writer, his last publication in a book on this subject is included at Guía práctica para abrir Gobiernos (“Practical Guide for Opening up Governments”) (Goberna – Instituto Universitario Ortega y Gasset. 2015.)
Ideas to tackle the irritating paradox that prevents collecting the value of public data.
The open data paradox
I will start with three statements:
- Data are the cornerstone of knowledge.
- Reusing public data creates social and economic value.
- Basic data belong to humanity and must be open for their common use.
If we think that these declarations are roughly correct, we will conclude that open data policies have an enormous relevance. Every government should deal with the publication of their information assets as a matter of highest priority.
Is there any evidence that supports this sense of importance? Actually, after eight years of Open Government Data initiatives we have seen meager results. A symptom: in the Novagob 2014 conference, hold in Tenerife, Antonio Acuña, responsible of the acclaimed British initiative, recognized that the value of opening up data still lies in “the internal cultural transformation it causes”.
Open data initiatives face an irritating paradox: although there is a consensus on its significance, it is very difficult to obtain relevant results. Public administrations know that the investment allocated to opening up data does not generate a return until those data are employed at an internal or external level to produce social or economic value. The aim of opening up data is not to bring about a cultural change, although this is also a “tremendously attractive” purpose.
In addition, there are multiple good practices related to the solutions reached thanks to the opening up of data. The glass is half full, but we do not know how to fill it up.
Ideas to capture value from open data public initiatives
Let us start mentioning five elements that can contribute to solving the problem, even though we will disclose the principal idea later on.
The open data offer is still limited and has a low quality. Indeed, we do not know yet how to assess the quantity and quality of the existing data, despite the existence of praiseworthy initiatives such as the Global Open Data Index. It is common to find partial data that do not have geographical continuity, are not adequately updated and are expressed in varied forms.
Some of the problems with the offer can be solved through the adoption of international agreements on what and how to publish. The Open Data Charter provides an appropriate framework for reaching such agreements. It is urgent to encourage national, regional and local leaders to publish a common basis of homogeneous and high-quality data.
Information assets manager:
If information is an essential asset, it should be managed as such. A person with the vision, knowledge and power to capture value from data should manage information. It is necessary to introduce in public institutions the role of the CIO as a leader of the strategic management of information. The CIOs network in the Republic of Colombia is one of the experiences that should be followed and, hopefully, emulated.
The efforts aimed at awakening the sleeping demand and increasing the capacity of the re-user groups must go on. Outcomes are increasingly better thanks, principally, to having focused the activities on specific benefits or groups. On the other hand, there is a risk of limiting promotion policies to the routine organization of hackathons. It is necessary to have clear aims and make a good diagnosis of the situation in order to be able to use new and imaginative ways of activating the demand.
Opening up data and fostering their use is not enough. There must be clear rules on the opening up of data for their reutilization, so that re-users operate in a context of trust where the effects of their acts can be anticipated. Providing data is like supplying water or fuel: if the supply stops, deteriorates or gets more expensive, the consequences for the consumer are catastrophic.
Data at the service of public policies
Although these five elements are helping to improve the situation, we need a more robust driving idea to tear down this wall. Even though the idea is implicit in the previous section, we must solemnly outline it now:
Open data public initiatives must be radically directed at achieving public policy goals.
It is difficult to visualize the potential benefits of data if we keep a general overview of data as such. In fact, data are useful in the context of a specific sector inhabited by recognized actors that have particular purposes.
The sectorial approach allows then to verticalize a policy as cross-cutting as the open data policy, in order to make the most of it. This vertical perspective coexists with the richness offered by mainstreaming when data from different origins are combined to achieve specific aims.
Let us think for example of an education department that seeks to improve school nutrition. We have a clear purpose, resources allocated to this end and progress indicators. The data required will come from multiple sources of the education sector and other sectors such as the health one. The school community itself, especially fathers and mothers, can provide additional data. If we align efforts to reach this goal, along the process we will have generated, opened up and combined data, sharing the responsibilities among public institutions, the private sector and the citizens in order to attain the desired objectives.
An open data initiative must consider both the data offer and the demand for their reuse. The sectorial approach provides the opportunity of focusing on the benefits of well-defined recipient segments as a starting point for encouraging the growth of a data reuse system that makes the most of the collaboration of diverse actors in order to achieve a greater transparency, an improved decision-making, new services and the development of initiatives that enhance citizens’ wellbeing.