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]

Continue reading “Open Government Data: possibilities and problems”

Making Government Better: New Online Tool

A team of researchers from the LSE Public Policy Group and the OII have developed an online tool to help government organisations improve their communication with customers. The team was led by Patrick Dunleavy (LSE) and Helen Margetts (OII), and Tobias Escher (OII) developed and programmed the online checklist.

More information, access to online tool and report downloads:

Paper forms, online applications and call centre scripts are the ‘face of government’ for most citizens. Earlier research by the team found that often forms were long, with confusing numbering. Some forms asked for the same information more than once and also requested information from customers that the government body already held. Our research found that this leaves customers frustrated, wastes the time of both customers and government staff, and often leads to inaccurate information where questions are badly designed.

The checklists were designed following work undertaken by the same research team for the UK National Audit Office on the Department for Work and Pensions. They allow government department staff to work through current forms (whether paper based, online or phone based) and identify aspects that are most difficult for customers to follow. They cover the language used, how customers prove their identity, how well help and guidance is provided for customers completing the form and the documentation customers are required to provide.

The online tool was launched last week at a seminar addressed by Sir Leigh Lewis, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Work and Pensions, hosted by the Institute for Government.

New Book: Joseph Camilleri and Jim Falk “Worlds in Transition: Evolving Governance Across a Stressed Planet”, Edward Elgar, UK, December 2009


The book that I worked on in 2006 as a Research Assistant with Professor Jim Falk is to be launched this Friday at the University of Technology; Sydney. The book is about the rise of ‘global governance’; driven by crisis such as climate and technological changes (I worked on the technology chapter).

The argument, and supporting studies, are built around a simple concept – that over the sweep of human history, ever more potent flows generated and shaped by ever more complex and sophisticated human activity, have increasingly developed across the boundaries around which prior governance institutions and processes have been erected. In this context the authors consider the growth of flows of finance, atmospheric pollutants, information, pathogens, and security threats, the challenges they pose, and the transformations to governance at all levels under way (link).

The book is to be launched by Helen Clark; the ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand. Well done Profs Jim Falk and Joseph Camilleri.

The book has its own web site (here).

Oxford Internet Surveys

(Another important ‘big picture’ Internet impact study from the Oxford Internet Institute).

Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) research is designed to offer detailed insights into the influence of the Internet on everyday life in Britain. Launched in 2003 by the Oxford Internet Institute, OxIS is an authoritative source of information about Internet access, use and attitudes. Some of the areas covered include: digital and social inclusion and exclusion; regulation and governance of the Internet; privacy, trust and risk concerns; social networking and entertainment; and online education (link).

OpenTech ’09

I attended the OpenTech ’09 forum on Saturday; organised by the UK Unix Users Group and friends at the University of London Union (ULU). For those interested in the social and political aspects of computing; this is an excellent forum to discuss new modes of political communication, privacy, advocacy and other issues that arise from the broader computing movement. There was an excellent talk on the two cultures of science/technology and the humanities from Bill Thompson who compared CP Snow’s pioneering work to present social circumstances. Bill basically argued that technological literary needs to rise considerably; especially in the political classes, otherwise we are doomed! He argued that many people in senior positions (as well as the broader public) do not understand the ‘power in code’ and this is perhaps why so many large government systems have failed in the UK (I just ordered CP shows book on Amazon for 10 quid).

Another interesting session was from a representative from the Guardian newspaper who discussed their experience of reporting the Ian Tomlinson death at the G20 protests earlier this year. The speaker explained how the video footage was released immediately  on the web rather the usual slower way through the print-edition. Although the analysis of this technique was not well communicated by the speaker, he did made the interesting observation that the Guardian in this instance had used their online distributing power to ‘crown source’ news rather than simply publish it. They had allowed others to use the video of Tomlinson’s death in Blogs and Youtube etc. rather than slowly releasing it thorough the print edition.

Another speaker from the Guardian talked about the paper’s very bold initiative to make much of their data open to the public. They have RSS feeds, an API system, and a sophisticated tagging system. I found their DataBlog one of the most interesting initiatives in that many of the facts that are researched by journalists have been aggregated for later use and open to the public.

The Guardian’s initiative to crowd source the expenses claims-documents of MPS was also discussed; along with the limitations and opportunities of this approach.