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A look at open government data use from data.gov.uk (Based on an MSc Dissertation by Tim Davies, July 2010)
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This is an online report based on an MSc Dissertation at the Oxford Internet Institute by Tim Davies submitted to the University of Oxford, July 2010. It is shared using the Digress.it platform which allows for paragraph level commenting and hyperlinking to elements of the document.

A downloadable PDF copy of the report is available here.

The original research, underlying data, and further work has been blogged in detail on the Open Data Impacts blog.

Abstract:
Governments are increasingly making their data available online in standard formats and under licenses that permit the free re-use of data. The justifications advanced for this include claims regarding the economic potential of open government data (OGD), the potential for OGD to promote transparency and accountability of government and the role of OGD in supporting the reform and reshaping of public services. This paper takes a pragmatic mixed-methods approach to exploring uses of data from the UK national open government data portal, data.gov.uk, and identifies how the emerging practices of OGD use are developing. It sets out five ‘processes’ of data use, and describes a series of embedded cases of education OGD use, and use of public-spending OGD. Drawing upon quantitative and qualitative data it presents an outline account of the motivations driving different individuals to engage with open government data, and it identifies a range of connections between open government data use of processes of civic change. It argues that a “data for developers” narrative that assumes OGD use will primarily be mediated by technology developers is misplaced, and that whilst innovation-based routes to OGD-driven public sector reform are evident, the relationship between OGD and democracy is less clear. As strategic research it highlights a number of emerging policy issues for developing OGD provision and use, and makes a contribution towards theoretical understandings of OGD use in practice.

Update Log

  • 26th August 2010 – First version published

ToDo

  • Check formatting & proof-read online copy
  • Improve the management of references using Zotero database of references

About This is an edited version of an MSc Dissertation exploring the use of open government data (OGD) from data.gov.uk: taking a theoretical and empirical look at who is using OGD, how it is being used, and what possible implications that has for different models of democratic change and public sector reform. The underlying study adopted a pragmatic mixed-method research design: exploring 55 instances of OGD use in overview and 14 more-detailed embedded cases of data use from data.gov.uk. It a [...]

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The last 18 months have seen dramatic developments in the release of open government data (OGD) across the world. In the UK, datasets ranging from crime statistics to transport data, school locations to government-wide spending data, have been placed online in machine-readable formats, licensed for re-use. At the preview launch of the UK data.gov.uk data portal (Cabinet Office 2009), Director of Digital Engagement Andrew Stott outlined four agendas driving the development of the platform and sur [...]

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Discussions of OGD are becoming widespread in practice and academic literatures on contemporary government (Pizzicannella 2010; Stephenson 2009; Lathrop & Ruma 2010; Coleman & Boland 2010; Robinson et al. 2008; Allan 2009; Parycek & Sachs 2010), and the desirability of increased openness of government datasets is emerging as political orthodoxy in the US (Obama 2010), UK (Cameron 2010; Brown 2009) and across Europe (Visby Declaration 2009; European Commission 2003a). However, much li [...]

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Hood and Margetts (2007) offer a functional model of government as operating through two sets of tools: detectors and effectors. Detectors gather information (and data) from society, and effectors seek to influence individuals and society (p. 3), often (but not exclusively) through dissemination of data and information. Beniger (1986) argues that since industrial revolutions in manufacturing and transportation in the 19th Century, governments have sought increasingly advanced data collection and [...]

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Data.gov.uk provides listings of non-personal government-held data, contributed by government departments, or available through the Office of Public Sector Information Data Unlocking Service[1]. Whilst often described as ‘raw-data’ many catalogue records currently refer to derived data and summary statistics, or link to query interfaces providing interactive access to sub-sets of data, rather than bulk dataset downloads. Providing open government data is a matter of accessibility, format [...]

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It is not uncommon to find the terminology of ‘opening access to information’ and ‘opening data’ used interchangeably (Parycek & Sachs 2010). Although integrally connected, the two concepts should be kept distinct. Data can be literally defined as “a thing given or granted; something known or assumed as fact” (OED 2000). Data may be raw/primary data (the direct product of measurement), derivative data (e.g. cross-tabulations; sums; reshaped data), meta-data (data about data) or o [...]

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There exist many diverse theoretical and empirical specifications of what makes for a democratic state and democratic participation (Dahl 2000; Dahl 1989; Dryzek & Dunleavy 2009; Held 2006; Beetham 1994). Democracy can be valued intrinsically, or on the basis of some other value (such as freedom or equality) that it promotes; or it can be valued instrumentally for producing better outcomes in terms of laws and public services. It is theoretically possible for public services to be improved i [...]

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Relationships between information and political decision making have received extensive treatment in the literature, particularly relating to greater citizen access to political information brought about by the rise of the Internet (Lievrouw 1994; Castells 2009; Kamarck et al. 2002; Hague & Loader 1999). The opening of government data can have two impacts on the availability of politically relevant information. Firstly, it can lead to the release of the data underlying formerly available inf [...]

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Notions of collaborative democracy and communicative government (Noveck 2010; Noveck 2009; Boland & Coleman 2008) seek to reframe relationships between citizen and state in an era of OGD: focusing on how state employees and citizens can work together to solve problems. Noveck’s notion of collaborative democracy is articulated as a critique of direct and deliberative democracy. Rather than openness supporting procedurally uniform dialogue and deliberation between citizens, an emphasis on [...]

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Crenson and Ginsberg (2003, p.174) argue that in recent decades “a new politics of individualized access to government and a new era of personal democracy” has developed in which “it has become standard practice to deal with government as an individual ‘customer’ rather than as a member of a mobilized public” . Market forces have progressively been introduced into public service delivery in many contexts, and competition is widely claimed as essential for promoting both efficiency (L [...]

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The above sections set out the historical context of OGD, and draw out the theoretical connections between OGD use, democracy and public sector reform. Sections 4 and 5 will explore OGD use in practice, guided by four core research questions: RQ1: Who is using OGD? What motivates their engagement with OGD? RQ2: How is OGD from data.gov.uk being used in practice? What technical processes are being adopted? RQ3: What models of democratic engagement and public sector reform does OGD su [...]

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In attempting to tackle emerging phenomena this study is deliberately broad based. Considerable attention is given to explaining each methodological choice. 3.1. Approach Mixed-method research combines qualitative and quantitative research within a pragmatist paradigm (Tashakkori & Teddlie 1998).  Pragmatism offers both an epistemic framework focused on the ‘primacy of practice’ (Putnam 1995, p.52; Hookway 2008) and, from Dewey (1938), a democratic ‘logic of inquiry’ (Putnam & [...]

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3.3. Methods Miles and Huberman (1994) encourage mixed-methods researchers to explicitly outline their research process. The data collection Fig. 2 above took place in sequential but overlapping steps, each informing subsequent data collection. The analysis draws upon data resources in parallel. 3.3.1. Exploratory research & participant observation Between January 5th and June 30th 2010 a custom-built CAQDAS[1] system was used to record and analyze public Twitter messages including [...]

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The following sections approach the first three research questions in turn, before §5 takes an analytical approach to respond to RQ4. This chapter includes the following sections 4.1. Understanding Open Government Data users 4.2. Open Government Data use in practice 4.2.2. Detailed comparisons and emerging themes 4.2.3. Direct access to facts 4.2.4. Interfaces, information and interpretation 4.2.5. Technological and social infrastructures 4.2.6. Impact 4.3. Civic u [...]

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“Geeks Meet Government” Tag-line of Rewired State hack-days It is hard to understand how OGD is being used without having an understanding of who uses OGD and what factors motivate their engagement with open data, and government data in particular. Whilst making no claims to be a representative sample, this study’s survey data suggests most OGD users are male (1-to-6; a similar ratio was observed at OGD events), better educated than the population average, and working either in private [...]

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“Calling Open Data Developers: We need your help… we want developers to work with us to use the data to create great applications;...” Digital Engagement Blog post, Cabinet Office (2009) The narrative of developers as primary users of open data is widespread, alongside ideas that the main use of OGD is to create ‘applications’. However, the survey component of this study, developed to explore uses of OGD beyond readily accessible high-profile examples, suggests data use is more div [...]

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Many uses of data involve multiple steps, or have multiple outputs. Table 3 and 4 (below) extend the schematic of Table 2 to outline the 14 detailed embedded cases collected (see §3.3.2), summarizing the different processes at work in each case. Annotations identify technologies used, and the shading indicates stages of the processes publically open and online for re-use. The following sections draw upon a comparative analysis of these cases, and wider data, in order to explore key emerging the [...]

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Advocacy for OGD release often focuses on ‘machine-readable data’, sometimes implicitly, if not explicitly, to the detriment of focusing on human-readable data. This can be based on assumptions that interfaces will inevitably be built onto data, providing non-technical users with access to the facts and information they desire. In both E6 (Refugee Charity Research) and E7 (School Admission Appeals), although the data-users were technically skilled[1], their data use relied upon directly e [...]

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Allowing third-parties to create interfaces onto OGD can lead to a diversity of interfaces. Within days of the release of COINS data at least four different platforms were available for navigating the dataset (C1-C4), and open-source code was available that actors could use to generate their own interpretation of the data via familiar tools (C5-C6). Each interface has a differing emphasis. The RA.Pid (C2) explorer focuses on presenting quantities of spending graphically, whereas the Guardian’s [...]

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A look across Education and COINS embedded cases reveals diverse technical approaches for working with OGD, both in terms of preferred data formats and technology platform preferences. Users frequently convert OGD into the formats they are most comfortable with, often sharing this derived data, or the source code to generate it (though much derived data is provided through APIs rather than as bulk data). Whilst a number of interviewees expressed an interest in data provision via linked-data/RDF, [...]

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Of the data.gov.uk users in this study with matching survey responses (n=44), just 31% agreed with the statement “This project makes a direct impact on peoples’ lives”, and 36% with the statement “This project contributes to improved local or national democracy”. Whilst partially attributable to such impacts not being goals of the OGD use, in other cases it is evident that OGD use stops short of pursuing wider social impact. The school governor behind E5 noted the limits of the statist [...]

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“Open data is not a panacea, but it is a start.” Brian Hoadley, Twitter, 21st January 2010 (public launch of data.gov.uk) Although most embedded cases cannot identify their direct social impact, they do posses implicit or explicit connections with different models of public sector reform/democratic change. Across the full 55 instances of OGD use, a total of 9 distinct types of civic OGD-use can be identified, set out in Table 5 and framed by the typology outlined in §2.4. Many OGD [...]

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This section returns to the four arguments for releasing OGD noted at the start of this study. These were that OGD release will play a role in: Promoting 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. Assessing the magnitude of impact that OGD can have in these respects is beyond the scope of this study. However, a number of mode [...]

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6.1. Directions for further research This exploratory study has undertaken wide-reaching preliminary work exploring OGD use. The typologies it offers require further work to generate operational definitions for each, and to further test their adequacy on a larger sample of OGD use-cases. Whilst this study inevitably touched on OGD supply, further work looking directly at relationships between supply and use of OGD would be valuable. Two strategies are relevant for this wider work. Firstly, a So [...]

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2009. Creating impact for an eUnion 2015 – "The Visby Declaration", Visby. Available at: http://www.se2009.eu/polopoly_fs/1.22793!menu/standard/file/conclusions%20visby.pdf. Aichholzer, G. & Burkert, H., 2004. Public sector information in the digital age: between markets, public management and citizens' rights, Edward Elgar Publishing. Alani, H. et al., 2007. Unlocking the potential of public sector information with semantic web technology. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 4825, 70 [...]

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The following poster was presented at the 'Web Science: A New Frontier' satellite meeting at The Royal Society Kavli Centre, 29th September 2010 and summarises some elements of the study. Click the image to access a full-size version on Flickr, or find a PDF copy on the Web Science Trust website. Comments welcome.

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The following essay is not part of the main dissertation. It was an assessed essay for the Networks of Collaboration module on the Oxford Internet Institute MSc Programme and was written prior to the main dissertation. It is also available as a PDF download. Shared here to allow me to link to some of the ideas in it more easily - and for attaching some comments to in developing thoughts further. Critical comment welcome. The current push to make public sector information available as raw d [...]

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The following essay is not part of the main dissertation. It was an assessed essay for the Digital Era Government and Politics module on the Oxford Internet Institute MSc Programme and was written prior to the main dissertation. It is also available as a PDF download. Shared here to allow me to link to some of the ideas in it more easily – and for attaching some comments to in developing thoughts further. Critical comment welcome. “Is a digital era government more responsive to citize [...]

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