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]

Background and context

The Political Issues Analysis System (PIAS) project (view original report .pdf) 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 representatives about these issues. Through workshops, case studies, and the development and testing of prototype software, the research uncovered some notable trends in user engagement with essential aspects of the formal political process online.

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

This work compliments the PIAS project by listing some critical projects and services utilising 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: enhancing and extending 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 in government functions. However, in the case of Victoria, for instance, much of the data being released within the Gov 2.0 agenda tends to be administrative and has little democratic potential. While the Parliament of Victoria does make an enormous amount of valuable material available to the public through its website; it needs to be 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. 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 crucial documents were available in a machine-readable form, they could be innovatively utilised by application developers.

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 challenging as multiple data sources require linking and matching across diverse and complex systems. The first step in this process is to expose data in a standardised way so 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 citizens through 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 by 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 by combining democratic data with citizen-produced data through popular social media platforms.[4] Rather than building an entirely new platform (as has been the case with several somewhat underutilised government initiatives), some projects take advantage of mainly 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 critical trends in providing democratic data internationally.

1: (Australia)

Whilst 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 defined 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 policy platform and factors which influence their policies.

A survey of the 1120 datasets available on 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 to promote greater participation in Australian democracy, it is committed to open government based on a culture of engagement built on better access to and use of government-held information. The innovative use of technology sustains it.[7] was created as a response to the recommendations of the Report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce and is still only at a reasonably early stage.[8] However, the term open government should also focus on the political aspects of Government rather than simply the administrative aspects of governance that are of far less interest and democratic value to the public.[9]

2: (Victoria, Australia) is the State version of the Federal Government’s and makes available the data from the working of the Victorian State Government agencies. As with the Federal version of the site, it aims to make government data freely available to developers and the public. [10]

The original policy framework through which much of the data was made available 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 could also include the workings of parliament and not just the workings of the bureaucracy.

3: (UK)

The UK has long been at the forefront of the Open Data movement and has many government agencies, programs, and initiatives to make government data more readily available. However, much of the action 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 raw material. Its value is in holding governments to account, driving choice and improvements in public services and 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 reveals that although many more datasets are available than in Australia, a total of 8669, not many could be described as democratic or holding the government to account. Apart from data about who Ministers are meeting and from what industries, there is very little data on 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 hardware and software computing capacities given 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 can 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 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 commercial software and services prices. 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. Still, it is an exciting model not only for 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 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 essential 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 helpful 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 developing standards. This assures that the technical standards set by the government are met openly and transparently.

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 and provides an automated way for government agencies to publish data. Developers can develop new applications within the platform 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 in the U.S. and the National Informatics Centre in India. Although in its early stages, this platform approach shows great promise, primarily through its link to popular social media platforms.

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

The Centre for Responsible Politics is a research group based in Washington in the United States investigating money in US politics and its effects on the political process. The organisation 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, ensuring that the original context of the data is known and appreciated (and the work of the Centre is adequately acknowledged). is a noteworthy innovation that reveals the great potential of democratic data 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 the 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 and the private sphere are creating enormous data in their day-to-day activities, which promises to grow. This creates considerable challenges in volume, veracity, variety and format, and even its velocity regarding 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. Still, it is essential to engage with it and develop new applications and services that address democratic opportunities and deficits. Some gap areas include:

  • Little or no data that could be considered democratic data is being made available through the Australian government’s Gov 2.0 policies. Whilst this does mirror international trends to some degree, the problem appears to be more acute in Australia
  • Data must be delivered with minimal copyright and in forms that developers may use 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 format). 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.



  1. (Australia), Department of Finance, Australian Federal Government (accessed 23 September, 2014)
  2. (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, (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  5. G Cloud (UK) (Digital Marketplace),, UK Government (accessed 23 September 2014).
  6. Government 2.0 Action Plan, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  7. Government Response to the Report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, Australian Government Department of Finance, (accessed 23 September, 2014).
  8. Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential, Francis Maud, Cabinet Office, UK Government (2012). (accessed 23 September 2014).
  9. Open Government Platform (USA), , (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),, Cabinet Office, UK Government (accessed 23 September 2014).
  12. WeGov Project, Seventh Framework Programme, EU, (accessed 23 September 2014).


[1] Government 2.0 Action Plan, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria (accessed 19 September 2014).

[2] Government 2.0 Action Plan, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Victoria (accessed 19 September 2014).

[3] Ibid.

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

[5] WeGov Project, Seventh Framework Programme, EU, (accessed 19 September 2014).

[6] The Victorian Governments 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 types of use. 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 the use of the Internet to interact with the 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 (accessed 23 September 2014)

[7] Declaration of Open Government, Department of Finance, Australian Government, (accessed 19 September, 2014)

[8] Government Response to the Report of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, Department of Finance, Australian Government (accessed 19 September, 2014).

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

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

[11] Open Data White Paper: Unleashing the Potential, Francis Maud, Cabinet Office, UK Government (2012).

[12] The innovative Apps developed using by third-party developers include Gov You: Your Freedom Data, which makes public ideas on civil liberties, regulations and laws. Another UK Climate Projection provides data on how the UK climate could change in the 21st century. Another expenditure map makes available public expenditure data by UK region within categories such as services, defence, and public order and transport (accessed 19 September 2014).

[13] G Cloud (UK) (Digital Marketplace),, UK Government.

[14] This software is provided by an Australian-based company, Objective Corporation (available for three thousand pounds). (accessed 19 September, 2014)

[15] Standards Hub, (UK),, Cabinet Office, UK Government. (accessed 19 September, 2014)

[16] Open Government Platform (USA),, (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] Centre for Responsible Politics (USA) (accessed 19 September, 2014).

[18] Several apps have been developed using the Centres data, such as Influence Tracker that tracks individual senators and representatives and the contributions that they have received.

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



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