Open Government Data: possibilities and problems

View a .PDF version of this report here

“Government 2.0 involves direct citizen engagement in conversations about government services and public policy through open access to public sector information and new Internet based technologies. It also encapsulates a way of working that is underpinned by collaboration, openness and engagement”[1]

Back ground and context

The Political Issues Analysis System (PIAS) project (view original report .pdf)—in which this work is a sub-set—sought to investigate how citizens in Melbourne, Australia used the Internet to seek political information about key political issues. It also sought to understand how citizens contacted and interacted with their elected representative in relation to these issues. Through workshops, case studies, and the development and testing of prototype software, the research uncovered some notable trends in terms of user engagement with important aspects of the formal political process online.

The PIAS project principally focussed upon citizen information use through investigating interaction with party web-sites and the policy documents that they made available. However, the participants in our study largely found 1), the sites difficult to use 2), the information hard to navigate and compare with other policies and 3), the written policies unreliable and unclear. One of our key recommendations from the study emphasized that polices published by political parties should be made available in a ‘machine readable’ form so that they can be automatically aggregated into other systems to enable citizens to compare the policy positions of the parties. Also, strict metadata publishing standards and frameworks should be used so that the information aggregated is of a high-standard allowing it be re-utilised effectively.

This work compliments the PIAS project through listing some of the key projects and services that available that utilise government data. It also explores in more detail the limited availability of what could be termed ‘democratic data’. For the purposes here, “democratic data” is described as: 1) Hansard: making the working of government available in new ways, 2) Transparency: newer forms of transparency through ‘data’, and 3) Policy: enhance and extend the policy making process through online open consultation.

Why Open Access to government data?

Much of the impetus behind the drive for Open Access to government data stems from a push for greater transparency to the functions of government. However, in the case of Victoria, for instance, much of the data being released within the Gov 2.0 agenda tends to be of an administrative nature and of little democratic potential. Whist the Parliament of Victoria does make an enormous amount of useful material available to the public through its website; it is not made available in a technically sophisticated, machine readable way, to take full advantage of the potential of the Internet. Bills are only available in .pdf or word format and the most important document about the workings of government, Hansard, is also only available as .pdf (although it is possible to do a full-text search of Hansard from 1991 onwards). If these important documents were available in a machine readable form, they could be utilised by application developers in innovative ways.

The Open Access movement is a push to make data both machine readable and interoperable so that it may be linked together and leveraged for all sorts of purposes. This may be for new business opportunities, medical research, or new areas of social research. However, doing this is no easy task as multiple data sources require linking and matching across diverse and complex systems (and ‘cleansing’). The first step in this process is to expose data in a standardised way so that it may be located and machine-read. The Victorian public sector has a policy framework specifically designed to achieve these tasks titled the Victorian Public Sector Action Plan. Two key points are:

  1. Participation: Engaging communities and citizen through using Government 2.0 initiatives to put citizens at the centre and provide opportunities for co-design, co-production and co-delivery.
  2. Transparency: Opening up government through making government more open and transparent through the release of public sector data and information[2]

Making data available in this way can only help to “deepen democratic processes” and promote a strong and healthy democracy (however this is often an aspiration rather than an actuality).[3] Accordingly, there is a promising international trend to promote a two-way dialogue between political representatives and the public through combining ‘’democratic data’’ with citizen produced data through popular social media platforms.[4] Rather than building a completely new platform (as has been the case with a number of somewhat underutilised government initiatives), some projects take advantage of largely existing and heavily used social network platforms and provide tools and services to augment their existing capacity (usually to inform and communicate government policy processes) The large EU funded WeGov project[5] and other projects in the US and Europe are welcome movements in this direction. [6]

Case studies

The following case studies describe key trends in the provision of ‘democratic data’ internationally.

1: Data.gov.au (Australia)

Whilst data.gov.au makes available a great deal of data from the Australian government and its agencies—both state and Federal—there is very little data that could be described as ‘democratic data’. Again, for the sake of this report, democratic data is described as data that may empower citizens to make informed voting decisions based upon the policy position of a particular Member of Parliament, the workings of and influences upon Parliament, or a political party’s policy platform and factors which influence their policies.

A survey of the 1120 datasets available on data.gov.au in 2013 reveals only a hand-full could be described as ‘democratic’ data. This does not appear to support the Federal Governments own Declaration of Open Government that states:

The Australian Government now declares that, in order to promote greater participation in Australia’s democracy, it is committed to open government based on a culture of engagement, built on better access to and use of government held information, and sustained by the innovative use of technology.[7]

Data.gov.au was created as a response to the recommendations of the Report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce and is still only at a fairly early stage.[8] However, the term ‘Open Government’ should also focus upon the political aspects of Government, rather than simply the administrative aspects of governance that is of far less interest and democratic value to the public.[9]

2: Data.vic.gov.au (Victoria, Australia)

Data.vic.gov.au is the State version of the Federal Government’s Data.gov.au and makes available the data from the working of the Victorian State Government agencies. As with the Federal version of the site, its aim is to make government data freely available to developers and the public. [10]

The original policy framework in which much of the data was made available through was called the Public Sector Information Release Framework (PSIRF). The Framework was a series of activities and policy guidance that allowed the Public Sector to recognise, categorise and release data of public benefit. Activities included ‘hack days’ where participants were given access to government data and tools within a competition scenario so that they could build new applications to uncover new insights from the data. The first Victorian Public Sector Hack Day was held on 7 April, 2010 with projects such as:

  • “Your Victoria, Your Budget – an online postcode-searchable directory of government infrastructure spending
  • Carbon Net – an online service to match carbon emitters with potential carbon sinks – including search by postcode and a range of carbon emission/savings calculation tools
  • Bloody Oath – an improved search system for legislation”

Again, the data release framework of data.vic.gov.au could also include the workings of parliament and not just the working of the bureaucracy.

3: Data.gov.uk (UK)

The UK has long been at the fore front of the Open Data movement and has many government agencies, programs, and initiatives aimed at making government data more readily available. However, much of the movement is imbued with somewhat utopian democratic ideals, which although commendable, may not actualise in practice. In the Forward to a UK Government White Paper titled ‘Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential’ the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the Rt Hon. Francis Maude stated that:

Data is the 21st Century’s raw material. Its value is in holding governments to account; in driving choice and improvements in public services; and in inspiring innovation and enterprise that spurs social and economic growth. In the last 20 years the world has opened up and citizens across the globe are proclaiming their right to data; this White Paper sets out how we intend to use that energy to unlock the potential of Open Data and for the first time the technology exists to make the demand for greater openness irresistible. [11]

A survey of the data made available through Data.gov.uk reveals that although there are many more datasets available than in Australia; a total of 8669, there are not many that could be described as democratic or ‘holding government to account’. Apart from data about who Ministers are meeting and from what industries, there is very little data of democratic potential.[12]

4: G Cloud (UK)[13]

The G-Cloud Program is likewise an initiative in the UK to deliver cloud-based services to government departments. Cloud computing is a term used to describe both hardware and software computing capacities that are delivered as a service over the Internet (or through other computing networks). G-Cloud provides sophisticated data storage and computation facilities that are usually beyond the user’s desktop.

Only eligible government organisations such as schools and government agencies are allowed to purchase the services from G Cloud (usually provided by commercial third party providers). These services include innovative software such as Policy Lifecycle Management. A Policy Lifecycle Management (PLM) toolset delivers strategic planning tools for use by policy and planning teams. [14]

The G-Cloud program combines the capacities of the Government Procurement Service portal and what is termed a ‘Government eMarketplace’. This allows the UK public sector to access centrally negotiated prices for commercial software and services. The G-Cloud Program provides over 1700 services of which the data produced may be of high political value (such as access to MP expenses or strategic policy development). Again, the G-Cloud service is in its infancy but it is an interesting model not only of the procurement of government ICT services but for the issues relating to the availability of government data. This data should always be open and available for broader democratic purposes and not restricted by third-party suppliers and licensing arrangements.

5: Standards Hub, (UK)[15]

The Standards Hub is also a project from the UK with the aim to prioritise and adopt ‘open standards’ in government (an ‘open standard’ is generally a standard within the public sphere that is royalty free). Open standards are important as they provide an ‘infrastructural framework’ in which third-party innovations may flourish. This is vital in the context of Open Government as it allows data to be collected, disseminated, and used across all government departments and agencies and beyond (in an open, standardised, and thus useful way).

The Standards Hub website acts as a ‘front door’ in which government employees (and developers and members of the public) can get involved in the development of standards. This assures that the technical standards set by government are done so in an open and transparent manner.

6: Open Government Platform (USA)[16]

The Open Government Platform is a pioneering joint-venture project from India and the United States. It makes government data, tools and processes available to developers, researchers, and the media to help promote informed and better decisions through access to quality information (and hopefully, the promotion of deliberative democracy).

The data available on the Open Government Platform comes from Data.gov and provides an automated way for government agencies to publish data. Developers are able to develop new applications within the platforms architecture and community spaces are available to discuss important topics. Users may share insights from the platform on popular social-software applications such as Twitter and Facebook and also have access to publically available APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).

The teams working on the project are from Data.gov in the U.S. and the National Informatics Centre in India. Although in its early stages, this ‘platform approach’ shows great promise, especially through its link to popular social media platforms.

7: OpenSecrets.org: Centre for Responsible Politics (USA)[17]

The Centre for Responsible Politics is a research group based in Washington in the United States that investigates money in US politics and its effects upon the political process. The organisation principally collects data about federal campaign contributions and lobbying and offers analysis based on this data. Data is gathered and curated from US Federal agencies such as the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service. The organisation provides access to its data through downloads and publically available APIs (that may be used for non-commercial use).[18]

The centre provides strict citation guidelines insuring that the original context of the data is known and appreciated (and the work of the Centre is properly acknowledged). OpenSecrets.org is a noteworthy innovation that reveals the great potential of ‘democratic data’ if it is collected, made available, curated, and re-used in appropriate democratic ways.

Conclusion: trends and gap areas

The increased dispersion of digital technologies into domestic spaces and civic society creates the imperative that government respond appropriately partly through the provision of Open Data along with services and applications that may be used online or through newer broadband enabled convergent devices (TVs etc.).[19] Governments as well as the private sphere are creating an enormous amount of data in their day-to-day activities and it promises to grow. This creates enormous challenges in terms of volume, veracity, variety and format, and even its velocity in terms of how it intersects with the temporal aspects of stable government institutions. In many ways the digital age creates as many problems for democracy as it addresses but it is important to engage with it and develop new applications and service that address democratic opportunities as well as the deficits. Some gap areas include:

  • Little or no data that could be considered ‘democratic data’ is being made available through the Australian governments Gov 2.0 policies. Whilst this does mirror international trends to some degree, the problem appears to be more acute in Australia
  • Data needs to be delivered with minimal copyright and in forms that it may be used by developers to preserve its original context (and not just with simplistic, empirical, descriptive metadata). Modern governments have always produced a plethora of information, in many forms, for many tasks, and for many audiences (and much of this is now in digital form). However, the term ‘data’, deriving from Science, comes with many preconceptions about its nature and significance and in systems as large and complex as modern governments, it is increasingly difficult to locate, understand, preserve, and analyse ‘data’ across agencies, departments, and democratic institutions that may lead to misuse and misinterpretation.

 

 

References

  1. gov.au (Australia), Department of Finance, Australian Federal Government (accessed 23 September, 2014)
  2. vic.gov.au (Victoria, Australia), Department of State Development, Business, and Innovation, Victorian State Government (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  3. gov.uk (UK), Transparency Board, Cabinet Office, UK Government (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  4. Declaration of Open Government, Australian Government, Department of Finance, http://www.finance.gov.au/e-government/strategy-and-governance/gov2/declaration-of-open-government.html (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  5. G Cloud (UK) (Digital Marketplace), https://digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk, UK Government (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  6. Government 2.0 Action Plan, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/index.php/news-publications/innovation/gov-20-action-plan (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  7. Government Response to the Report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, Australian Government Department of Finance, http://www.finance.gov.au/publications/govresponse20report/index.html (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  8. Open Data White Paper: Unleashing he Potential, Francis Maud, Cabinet Office, UK Government http://data.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Open_data_White_Paper.pdf (2012).(accessed 23 September, 2014).
  9. Open Government Platform (USA), http://ogpl.gov.in , (National Informatics Centre, Department of Electronics & IT, Government of India and Office of Citizen Services & Innovative Technologies, General Services Administration, U.S. Government).(accessed 23 September, 2014).
  10. org: Centre for Responsible Politics (USA) (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  11. Standards Hub, (UK), http://standards.data.gov.uk , Cabinet Office, UK Government (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  12. WeGov Project, Seventh Framework Programme, EU, http://www.wegov-project.eu/ (accessed 23 September, 2014).

 

 Footnotes

 

[1] Government 2.0 Action Plan, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/index.php/news-publications/innovation/gov-20-action-plan (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[2] Government 2.0 Action Plan, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/index.php/news-publications/innovation/gov-20-action-plan (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[3] Ibid.

[4] An approach that utilises the communication tools and services that largely already exist (such as Google, Twitter, Facebook etc.), has not been fully utilised nor really understood in a political sense, by the public, civil society, nor by elected representatives.

[5] WeGov Project, Seventh Framework Programme, EU, http://www.wegov-project.eu/ (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[6] The Victorian Government’s Government 2.0 action plan, for instance, prioritises ‘engaging communities and citizens’ and ‘opening up government data to promote greater transparency’ but does appear to be moving in this direction with any great urgency. As the Victorian Government 2.0 Action Plan states:

Research has found that usage of social media and social networking sites has increased with 45% of Australians reporting regular use, up from 38% in 2008. This growth is across all age groups although there are differences in patterns and type of use between age groups. For example, older Australians are now responsible for expanding the reach of online social networking, indicating that Web 2.0 is not just a Gen Y phenomenon. There has also been a significant increase in use of the Internet to interact with government and a corresponding reduction in traditional methods of communication, such as by mail or in-person.

Government 2.0 Action Plan, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/index.php/news-publications/innovation/gov-20-action-plan (accessed 23 September, 2014)

[7] Declaration of Open Government, Department of Finance, Australian Government, http://www.finance.gov.au/e-government/strategy-and-governance/gov2/declaration-of-open-government.html (accessed 19 September, 2014)

[8] Government Response to the Report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, Department of Finance, Australian Government http://www.finance.gov.au/publications/govresponse20report/index.html (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[9] Good examples of ‘democratic data’ are data sets that are provided by external sources to the Department of Premier and Cabinet that reveal the name of the lobbyists and their organisations.

[10] Data.vic.gov.au, (Victoria, Australia), Department of State Development, Business, and Innovation, Victorian State Government.

[11] Open Data White Paper: Unleashing he Potential, Francis Maud, Cabinet Office, UK Government http://data.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Open_data_White_Paper.pdf (2012).

[12] The innovative Apps that have been developed using Data.co.uk by third party developers include: Gov You: Your Freedom Data that makes public, ideas on civil liberties, regulations and laws. Another UK Climate Projections provides data on how the UK’s climate could change in the 21st century. And another expendituremap makes available public expenditure data by UK region within categories such as: services, defence, and public order and transport http://data.gov.uk/apps (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[13] G Cloud (UK) (Digital Marketplace), https://digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk , UK Government.

[14] This software is provided by an Australian based company called Objective Corporation (available for three thousand pounds). http://www.objective.com/ (accessed 19 September, 2014)

[15] Standards Hub, (UK), http://standards.data.gov.uk , Cabinet Office, UK Government. (accessed 19 September, 2014)

[16] Open Government Platform (USA), http://ogpl.gov.in , (National Informatics Centre, Department of Electronics & IT, Government of India and Office of Citizen Services & Innovative Technologies, General Services Administration, U.S. Government) (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[17] http://www.opensecrets.org Centre for Responsible Politics (USA) (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[18] A number of apps have been developed using the Centre’s data such as ‘Influence Tracker’ that tracks individual senators and representatives and the contributions that they have received.

[19] In a humanities context any source of data may be used as evidence towards an argument or report that may have enormous political or other value.

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