Why put government data online?

I’m revisiting my literature review as I enter the last few weeks of writing up this study for my MSc dissertation, and I wanted to try and get a sense of all the different arguments that have been put forward for the release of Open Government Data. So, here’s the ongoing list of different arguments or reasons for OGD I’ve found across the literature. I’m not making these arguments or assessing them here – just collecting and sharing my notes. I’ll probably update this post as I do some more work on this part of the final dissertation in the next week or so…

The Power of Information Taskforce Report (Feb 2009) suggests that the restriction of data is “is bad for democratic expression, the economy and citizen customers” (p. 22) and quotes Gordon Brown speaking in 2007 stating:

‘..to protect individual liberty we should have the freest possible flow of information between government and the people…Public information does not belong to Government, it belongs to the public on whose behalf government is conducted.’

The report also argues that “Data and information are the lifeblood of the knowledge economy.” (p.4) and argues that the release of data can support co-production of services and innovation (p. 14). Suggesting a ‘BBC Backstage‘ model of working with data, the report notes of this:

  • It would create an ongoing source of innovative ideas for the use of government data, some of which may be rolled back into the principal websites whilst others remain free-standing.
  • It has the potential to build stronger working relationships between developers inside and outside government strengthening the capabilities of both parties.
  • And it would provide a useful channel for resolving some of the technical issues around access to government data that is made available under the Public Sector Information reuse regime.

Much of the reports focus was restricted to geospatial data, the lack of which at that time was seen to proven the delivery of accurate and innovative services to help people locate public services or find out who runs particular public services.

Putting the Frontline First: Smarter Government (Dec 2009) suggests that opening up data could:

  • “… harness people’s appetite and ability to drive up service standards” and that “In the past, much public service improvement was driven by the force of government targets set by central government. In the future, much more of the pressure for improvement can come from the local level” (§1.3)
  • It argues that “a more informed citizen is a more empowered citizen”.
  • It notes “In a modern democracy citizens rightly expect government to show where money has been spent and what the results have been.
  • Innovation also featured as a reason: “Data can also be used in innovative ways that bring economic benefits to citizens and businesses by releasing untapped enterprise and entrepreneurship.”

The Conservative Party 2010 Manifesto included a commitment to a ‘Right to data’. Under the heading “Make politics more transparent” it notes:

  • “People will have a right to government data to make the performance of the state transparent.” (p. 69)
  • Data will allow the public to “hold government to account”.
  • Transparency is accorded a very powerful role in phrases such as: “We will ensure british aid money is properly spent by publishing full details of british aid on the DfiD website.”

At the bloggers launch of the data.gov.uk developers beta (Sept 2009) Director of Digital Engagement Andrew Stott shared four reasons for open data (my own paraphrasing):

  • Transparency and accountability
  • Empowering citizens to drive public sector reform
  • Releasing the economic and social value of information
  • Putting Britain at the leading edge of semantic web developments

Obama’s US Open Government Memo (2009) frames the open data initiatives in the US in the context of “Transparency, participation and collaboration”.

The possibility of data releases leading to collaborative correction of errors in data is often mentioned in talks / presentations, but has not, as far as I can find, been advanced as a substantive reason for opening access to data.

Tim Berners-Lee in his 2009 design note on putting government data online suggests:

Government data is put online typically for 3 reasons:
1. Increasing citizen awareness of government functions to enable greater accountability;
2. Contributing valuable information about the world; and
3. Enabling the government, the country, and the world to function more efficiently.

Each of these purposes is best served by using Linked Data techniques.

In Unlocking the Potential of Public Sector Information with Semantic Web Technology, Alani et. al (2007) argues that “Public Sector Information (PSI) can make an important contribution to bootstrapping the SW, which in turn will yield many gains.” with the gains cited being “greater efficiency through information sharing and integration to realise broader economic and social gains”.

Rufus Pollock’s Models of Public Sector Information Provision (PDF) and the follow up paper The Economics of Public Sector Information (PDF) make an economic argument for the value that is gained from releasing specific datasets currently managed under trading funds. (Although I’m damned if I can find any way of making sense of the £6bn value claim drawn from these papers that makes it into the Conservative Manifesto. £6b over what time period?)

Tim O’Reilly in ‘Government as a Platform‘ (published in the wide-ranging Open Government book) argues that “Data is the ‘intel inside'” that not only “is a key enabler of outside innovation” but that it creates significant economic value.

Government Data and the Invisible Hand‘ also focusses on the innovation potential of opening access to data – but with an argument about the public benefit when the government can harness the creativity and innovation of the open market and bring information closer to citizens.

David Eave’s case study of exploring open data on charitable fundraising suggests a many-eye’s scrutiny argument for opening data.

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Open Data in Developing Countries

The focus of my work is currently on the Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) project with the Web Foundation.

MSc – Open Data & Democracy

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