Opening up government data for citizens: an ambitious vision.

Posted: May 21, 2010 in Gov20
Tags: , , , ,

In my government organisation we slowly and prudently are working to open up governmental data to other organisations, companies and the public. We do this for four reasons:

  1. First, a lot of energy, time and money is lost of governmental organisations hiding ‘their’ information forcing others to build similar databases.
  2. Two, a lot of opportunities are to be gained if data is entered, made available, processed and consulted using shared services.
  3. Three, the openness to iterative and collaborative experimentation and improvement that is characteristic of many Web 2.0 initiatives is one of the web’s deep lessons and, potentially, contains the means to transform our understanding and experience of governance.
  4. Four, government workers (how smart, well-educated and open-minded they can be) never will come up with the ‘killer application’ that will collectively be embraced by citizens. I’ve seen it so many times: civil servants sitting together in brainstorm sessions, knowing they have all means and technology available, fully understanding the data they have and then looking at the white board for inspiration. Some look at it as rabbits at night look at a light. Others see great solutions that sounded great, are great but greatly miss their target audience. Strange, I’ve been part of such meetings several times in my career. It is like a dark cloud that suddenly appears in front of our eyes and blurs the view.

Fortunately, there is good news. For the first time in modern industrial society, thanks to current Web2.0 technology, governments have the chance to realise the potential embodied in Bill Joy‘s observation that there will always be more smart people outside government than within it. And perhaps, in view of the scale and complexity of the challenges faced in the early 21st century, perhaps there has never been a more urgent time to realise this latent, distributed potential.

As said in the introduction: in this domain my organisation moves slowly, carefully and (that is the good news) also patiently. And (that’s the best news) determined.

But some are not that prudent. And that is a good thing. I am personally intrigued and inspired by the 2009 citizen’s initiative prior to the November 2009 EU ministerial declaration of e-Government. This Open Declaration deserves our attention and already earned my support. I try to summarise their statement:

VISION:

“We believe that the European Union has a tremendous opportunity to rebuild the relationship between citizens and the state by opening up public institutions and by empowering citizens to take a more active role in public services and in public decision-making.”

Thought: Perhaps the regions around the North Sea (including the Scandination countries) might take a lead here (not to lead but to inspire).

GOAL:

“We want to be able to give input on and monitor government activities as they being designed, deliberated upon, implemented, and reviewed; for all types of activity, from legislation, where law proposals should be published at an early stage, to government spending where each spending decision should be published with clear and open rationale.”

Thought: As I said, the full monty. Working in a public organisation myself with politicians taking key decisions, this is like swearing in church. As a citizen it makes sense.

APPROACH:

“Public institutions should seek out the contribution of citizens not only to provide feedback and accountability, but to assist in deliberating, delivering, monitoring and accessing policy, because harnessing the salient knowledge and experience of individuals dispersed through the community will strengthen policy outcomes.”

Thought: Keyword one is “seek out” which is active rather than passive. Keyword two is “citizens assist in”. Not so sure about the second however.

CONCRETE: The document invites Member States and the Commission to adopt, the principles of Transparency, Openness, Collaborativness, Pivacy and Responsability:

  1. Transparency Principle: all public sector organisations should provide the public with a live stream of information on all aspects of their operations and decision-making processes.
  2. Openness Principle: The whole spectrum of government information, from draft legislation to budget data, should be made simple for citizens to discover, access, understand, reuse, and remix; releasing data swiftly, in open standard- and machine-readable format, thereby allowing third parties to monitor government and provide services more in line with users needs, and ensuring that the data is continuously available and continuously up to date.
  3. Collaborative Principle: Citizens should be able to share feedback and insight on public services publicly with other fellow citizens, civil servants, and governors in fluid peer-to-peer conversations, and to help each other in making the most of these services.
  4. Privacy Principle: Although Privacy and Openness superficially seem to be in contrast with each other the authors recognise that the honesty of feedback is sometimes only possible if the citizen are sure their input cannot be tracked back. For that reason they want government to ensure that the minimum amount of personal information is used and retained in providing those services to citizens.
  5. Responsability Principle: Every person should have the tools to trackback every decision taken by members of the government.

APPLYING TO: The document expects those principles to be applied to the following data:

  1. Government data: All information created by public institutions, must be public and easily accessible by citizenship. All information released by public sector organisations should be released in machine searchable ways to ensure maximum public value is gained from it.
  2. Government legislation: All legislation and all planned legislation should be released electronically in web-accessible formats that make it easy for citizens to refer to, comment on, and link to particular paragraphs within proposals.
  3. Government Spending: All government spending, at every level of the Government should be available for monitor and discussion in a paragraph based format.
  4. Publicly-held data sets: Except where there are genuine and insurmountable privacy issues, governments should look to share publicly-held data sets wherever possible.

TECHNOLOGY: All the data and software provided must be non plattform dependent, that means every citizen can use it from any Operating System or device with Internet access.

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