Monday, 10 October 2011

Open Data – Who cares?

Institute’s Fellow Antti Halonen comments on the perceptions of open data.
Arguably the most visible aspect of the recent drive for more open data in the UK has been the Transparency agenda that was implemented by the current coalition government last year. At the core of the agenda is the publication of all public spending information worth over £500 on local government level and over £25,000 on central government respectively.

With the agenda, government hopes to release nothing less than – in the words of Community Secretary Eric Pickles (con)  - “a revolution in Town Hall openness” which would effectively result in increased accountability and a dramatic cut in public waste. Moreover, information would be presented in a linked and open format, which is hoped to encourage the public to exploit it in a variety of ways.

Despite the very early nature of the agenda, some initial observations can already be made on the impacts and perceptions of the project.

Sadly, it seems that the level of public interest towards data is relatively low: according to some local government data producers nearly non-existent. In a survey conducted earlier this year (1), a vast majority of local government officials responsible of publishing spending data shared a view that the number of data downloads and page hits on council’s open data pages is significantly smaller than expected. In addition, data producers fear that the general level of understanding of data is minimal due to the lack of proper context.

Other studies seem to indicate similar findings. In aggregate level, the general public is not interested in spending data and thus the expectations of immediate benefits of the agenda appear to have been overly optimistic. This could potentially be a significant problem in terms of arguing for more data transparency. Data need to have a proper context and thus be more relevant to public in order to be exploited efficiently and in a productive manner. In case of spending data, the demand and context does not seem to be there yet.

Another problem that has been imminent is the partly politicised environment in which the transparency debate has taken place. Instead of potential positive impacts of open data, the main arguments that have flown have usually been either accusations of the coalition government using transparency as a “gimmick for more cuts” or of Labour-led councils trying to cover up their “reckless waste of tax payers’ money”. Central and local governments have accused each other, as well, with Department for Communities and Local Government blaming LG on hugging their data and making up excuses for not releasing them while LG feels that guidance given from central government has been inappropriate, or even rubbish at times.

It may very well be true that open data is no silver bullet, but despite these early setbacks, we at the Institute feel that there is no reason to abandon open data, far from it. Given the skeptical views towards the transparency agenda it is even more crucial to conduct research on the practical solutions that have arisen and to examine whether open data policies have supported the applicability of data, thus potentially resulting in smaller scale success stories. Spending data is, after all, only one aspect of the whole open data phenomenon. Wider discussion on the intrinsic justification of open data and its conceptual relationship with other aspects of open society is also needed. 

We care about open data. We care about it because we believe in the creative value of sharing and that things can always be done better. The open data revolution will probably never shake the very foundations of our society, but at least it could nudge us towards a more responsive and collaborative society, where common resources would be put into proper use for the common good.

Antti Halonen
Fellow at the Finnish Institute in London

(1) Research conducted by author. Results not yet published.

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