Friday, 23 December 2011

A Christmas Carol 2011, or How the Ghost of Open Data Showed Finland the Future

Institute's Fellow Antti Halonen writes about open data development in finland and encourages people to use their data wranging skills for the good of society and democracy. 
Last few weeks have been truly remarkable in terms of the development of open data in Finland.
In midst of the on-going discussion in the UK on the necessity and feasibility of Public Data Corporation (or Public Data Group, as it is apparently called nowadays) and potential setbacks that might cause for open data, Finland has taken bold steps towards opening up their data sets.

As noted in our previous post, the National Land Survey of Finland had decided to open up significant amounts of mapping data, a move that would be arguably one of the most progressive open data initiatives in Europe. Ministry of Finance had, however, initially decided to block the move. It alarmingly looked like Scrooge had come up victorious and Tiny Tims of Finland would be left without their Christmas data.

After an aggressive campaign by both open data activists and later the Finnish media, the Finnish government eventually decided to overrule the ministry’s decision and release the data as the Land Survey had originally suggested. The Minister for Agriculture, Mr Jari Koskinen, even stated that “it would be irresponsible not to exploit this opportunity for growth”. Data sets will thus be opened up in May 2012 for a free re-use for all public.

There is a reason to celebrate, but this is only the beginning.

In a wider scale, what we don’t yet really know is how open data is being used. In case of the UK transparency agenda the number of spending data users is lower than expected, and it is often quoted that there needs to be more context in data in order to facilitate better use of data.

Mapping data has exactly that context; it is relevant for citizens’ everyday lives and people can quite easily understand it. Therefore it is crucial that developers really seize the opportunity when the data finally is opened up next year: data has value only in its use.

It is not only developers who should step up and recognise their responsibility in further developing open data ecosystem. The rest of us need to find new ways of measuring the multiple positive impacts of open data on society, if we are to continue evangelising in a credible manner. Economic impacts are widely recognised but much more important is the impact on democracy. How to measure that impact remains relatively unclear.

Moreover, potential data users need to be nudged into fully capitalising their potential of using data for common good. The reality is that the number of data users is still quite low and they tend to use data mostly for personal reasons: they have to have some personal gain from the use. More altruistic motivations need to be supported.  

In order to achieve the expected benefits, some concrete ways of facilitating the use needs to be developed. One potential way to further facilitate open data in Finland might be to start up a comprehensive data catalogue and encourage data providers both from public and private sector to adapt it. Another one might be to provide more education on data and programming skills. Public sector organisations have vast amounts of relevant data and might be willing to open them up, but don’t yet necessarily know how to do it. Likewise, many citizens would be interested in using data, but don’t have sufficient data wrangling skills.

The Ghost of Open Data is a powerful force, but alas, we can’t rely on that for too long. The on-going momentum needs to be capitalised and that means more work and probably more lobbying of public officials and politicians. Most of all, it needs a) someone to download new and shiny data sets and create wonderful services that benefit the whole society and b) someone to tell the rest of us why this is necessary for the society and our democracy.

Not necessarily the smallest of tasks.  

Antti Halonen
Fellow at the Finnish Institute in London


Totally Driven said...

Informative and interesting one...Carols make the ocassion special as you think all in praise of thr Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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