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About

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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 also draws upon survey, interview and participant-observation data.

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Introduction

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Many arguments have been put forward to justify the release of government data: transparency and accountability arguments; arguments that OGD can allow citizens greater control over public sector reform; economic benefit arguments and arguments that OGD can help develop a web of linked-data. Whilst the later two arguments are addressed by economic and web-science literatures respectively, the first two have received limited scrutiny.

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Towards open government data

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Collection and dissemination of information and data are key tools of government. Governments gather large amounts of data and hold significant national datasets. To be made meaningful data must be represented or contextualized in some way – converted into information. In an increasingly digital society where data can be transferred and analyzed using freely accessible platforms and tools, the monopoly government historically had on processing and interpreting data is undermined. Pressures for governments to open access to data come from both a Public Sector Information (PSI) lobby focused on commercial re-use of data and from campaigners interested in Freedom of Information (FOI) and open government. The last 10 years have seen significant progress for both open-PSI and open-government campaigns, leading to notable progress in the opening of access to government datasets (See timeline in §2.2).

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Definitions of open government data (OGD) generally require that the data must be accessible (e.g. online), in standard and re-useable formats, and under licenses that allow for data to be re-used in different contexts. Many local and national governments have created ‘data portals’ to list their available OGD, with the UK national data.gov.uk launched publically in January 2010. Data.gov.uk launched with a ‘developers beta’, suggesting the implicit assumption that the majority of uses of OGD will involve technically oriented developers.

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Findings

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How is OGD being used?

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The ends to which open data is put are diverse, though many current uses of data from data.gov.uk are exploratory and experimental. This study puts forward five distinct processes of OGD use:

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  • Data to fact – often underestimated in accounts of ‘data for developers’ – individuals may seek out specific facts in a newly open dataset. These facts may support their engagement in civic or bureaucratic processes, or in business planning. Facts could be found through online interfaces, but also by browsing downloaded Excel spreadsheets.
  • Data to information – creating a static representation and interpretation of one or more data sources. Leading to visualizations, blog posts, info-graphics and written reports.
  • Data to Interface – creating a means to interactively access and explore one or more datasets. For example, creating a searchable mapping mash-up, or providing a tool to browse a large dataset and crowd source feedback or scrutiny. Interfaces often also include ‘static’ interpretations of data (data to information) – showing particular summary statistics or algorithmically derived assessments of underlying data.
  • Data to data – sharing derived data (either simply an original dataset in a new format, or data that is augmented, combined with other data, or manipulated in some way. A whole dataset may be shared, an API onto a dataset created, or an interface that makes it easy to download subsets of a large dataset.
  • Data to service – where OGD plays a ‘behind the scenes’ role in making some online or offline service function. For example, the use of boundary data to route messages reporting potholes to the responsible authority.
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These processes of OGD use are not mutually exclusive, and many OGD uses employ multiple processes. By mapping out the path from original OGD to end-use in different cases, certain trends, such as the frequent caching of bulk datasets become visible, raising questions about how well current OGD infrastructures and patterns of use will cope with updates to original datasets. Gaps between the development of interfaces onto data, and the find-ability of interfaces from the data.gov.uk portal were also observable.

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Who is using OGD?

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Demographically, in early 2010, users of OGD were overwhelmingly male (6-to-1 in survey results), and generally split between micro-enterprise and SME business in the private sector, local and national public sector institutions, and academic institutions, with a very limited representation of voluntary sector workers. Looking at the motivations of OGD users, six sets of drivers for engaging with OGD can be identified:

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  • Government focus: wanting to better understand government and to promote efficiency and accountability;
  • Technology innovation focused: interested in creating new platforms and tools, and in semantic-web/linked-data technology;
  • Reward focused: seeking recognition and/or profit;
  • Digitizing government: Seeking technologically driven improvements in efficiency and functioning of government;
  • Problem solving: using OGD to meet specific challenges;
  • Social/public sector enterprise: using OGD to provide services in/to the public sector;
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Figure 4 in §4.1 indicates relationship between these motivations. Alongside the policy, social and business entrepreneurs interested in exploring how OGD could be exploited, many OGD users have some degree of ‘digitizing government’ motivation. Some digitizing government motivations can be conceptualized as part of a ‘Computerization Movement’ (Kling Iacono 1988b) in which “advocates focus on computer-based systems as instruments to bring about a new social order” (Kling Iacono 1995, p.122).

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Whilst it is meaningful to speak of a UK OGD-using community, the current community, mediated through mailing lists, online social networking, and events, is technology-focused, and does not include all OGD users. Many actors with experience of data-use in civic contexts are absent or on the periphery of current OGD use communities.

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Data impacts: democratic engagement and public sector reform

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Section 2.4 sets out a number of models of democratic engagement and public sector reform. In §4.3 the paper returns to these to explore how OGD is acting on the civic domain in practice. Whilst examples of OGD use to support scrutiny of formal political processes are apparent, there is more evidence of OGD use supporting co-production of public services between social and commercial entrepreneurs and the state, and of OGD being used to create improved information services for ‘citizen consumers’, emphasizing notions of ‘personal’ over ‘collective’ democracy. OGD impacts upon markets for public services where OGD is a key input into service provision. OGD can also reduce friction in co-production of services between different levels of the state. A number of cases of OGD were also evident where open data helped to challenge power imbalances between citizen and state in bureaucratic processes (e.g. applying for funding; appealing about a school admissions decision).

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Implications

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A number of key themes can be drawn out from the analysis of how OGD is being used to inform policy and practice around OGD.

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  • 1. Data is not just for developers – direct access to trusted sources of facts is valuable for many individuals: either to be able to look up a specific fact, or to work with a dataset in familiar desktop software (e.g. Excel) in order to write s report or analyze the data for making a decision.It is not clear that all datasets will have accessible interfaces built on top of them, or that those interfaces will present all the relevant underlying data – so human readable raw datasets may, in many cases, be as valuable as machine-readable ones.
  • 2. OGD changes the gatekeepers, and the role of civic actors – with mainstream media, independent citizens, companies and different levels of government are all afforded the possibility of advancing their own interpretations and representations of data. Government, however, can retain some gate-keeping power by setting the categories and structure in which data is recorded and released.There will be greater need in future for capacity both in state and society to be able to debate the meaning of data, and to find responsible ways of using open data in democratic debate.
  • 3. OGD supports innovation in public services – although it is not yet clear that there are strong models for the use of OGD in allowing communities to collectively debate and drive local change. Social and commercial entrepreneurs play a core role at present in turning OGD into new services or inputs into public services.
  • 4. A focus on digitizing government underlies much OGD use, and can lead to concerns of politics, power and justice being under-valued in the development of OGD infrastructure – a focus on idealized digital infrastructures also risks loosing site of practical end-uses of OGD, thus care must be taken to identify and work with real use-cases, and civic and democratic use-cases, in considering how OGD use is further developed.