Monthly Archives: March 2012

Our new research on open data argues for better user engagement and more research on the societal impacts

Fellow at the Finnish Institute in London, Antti Halonen, blogs about his newly published report: Being Open About Data

The Finnish Institute in London has recently completed a five-month research project on the British open data policies. Report looks on how the open data ecosystem has emerged in the UK and what lessons can be drawn upon the British experiences. The year 2012 will be a big year for open data in Finland, and this report also partly aims at further facilitating the development of open knowledge in Finland.  
The key findings can be listed as follows:
  • Key to benefits is the quality of user engagement 
  • Open data and its objectives should be addressed as a part of the freedom-of-information continuum 
  • The decision to emphasise the release of expenditure data was not ideal: governments do not know best what kind of data people want to have and should aim at releasing it all 
  • Leadership, trust and IT knowledge are crucial, not only political leadership but within organisations too 
  •  The social and democratic impacts of open data are still unclear and in future there is a need for sector-specific research
Research was conducted from September 2011 to January 2012, mostly by semi-structured interviews of key experts and qualitative analysis of the government policies. Starting point for the research was to primarily address the applicability of open data: how data is being used and what kind of benefits is it possible to identify from the data use. During the research process it became evident, however, that open data as a concept is so diverse that a mere analysis of data use would be insufficient in order to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon. 
Open data is applied in various ways with lots of small-scale success stories available, mostly in the form of mobile-phone or web applications. These apps and websites – as innovative and useful as they are – are yet not the key issue when addressing the overall value of open data. These services make everyday life of citizens a tiny bit easier, and when accumulated they may result in significant economic benefits. However, the open-data community has also been vocal about the potential positive impacts on democracy. These impacts are significantly harder to identify and need much more research in order to produce comprehensive and reliable results. In addition, we must realise the difference between transparency and democracy-oriented goals that are usually associated with the freedom-of-information movement and the technology and innovation-oriented goals of the open-data movement. The overall value of transparency is, however, not something that should be measured primarily in financial profits.
Key to further benefits, whether economic or democratic, is more education and improved user engagement – of both citizens and public officials. The level of knowledge and understanding of open data is currently rather low, and most data producers don’t yet see the potential benefits that lie in open data. Equally, individual citizens are not necessarily capable of using datasets as the threshold for accessing and using raw datasets effectively is, at times, quite high. The best examples, in fact, are those where the data-portal interfaces are made as simple and easy to use as possible by providing relevant context to data and equally where data users are already engaged in public participation, be it within the public sector itself or some organised civic-society movement. Consequently, it is only the data user herself who knows what kind of data would be most useful. A certain service-design approach would be desirable already in the planning phase of the data release.
There are already examples available where companies have benefited commercially from data and where public-sector organisations have gained efficiency benefits. In the future, it is more important to focus on the normative side of open data and on its potential impacts on democracy. There is a risk of creating a hollow mantra of open data improving the level of democracy without any evidence provided. However, the potential for great improvement in democratic accountability is there.
All these benefits, economic and democratic, require the threshold for accessing, understanding and using the data to be as low as possible. In order to achieve this, the data producers must possess a certain level of ICT knowledge to implement the system so that it is both simple enough to use and sophisticated enough to be able to manage information flow comprehensively. In many cases, the ICT and data-management infrastructure is not sufficient, and organisations lack the human resources to renew it so that it matches the requirements of openness. This should not be an excuse for not to release data, however, but a wake-up call for both data providers and open-data community alike.
Finally, it should be made clear that open data is not apolitical initiative. There is a strong political side to it, which dates all the way back to the long development process of governmental transparency in the UK. The initial focus on the release of expenditure data is claimed to be driven by political motives, and in terms of development of sustainable and productive use of data it was not necessarily the right decision to make. The discussion of open data was sidetracked when the focus was on the rift between local and central government and not on how public-sector organisations and civic communities could benefit from data. For many local-government data producers, the whole open-data initiative is equivalent to the £500 expenditure-data agenda and hence they don’t necessarily see the wider context and potential benefits that might lie in open data. Bearing this in mind, the open-data community should be wary of arguing too eagerly in favour of open data improving the general access to information. Open data at its current form is mostly a target-driven policy without the reactive pull-factor that is essential for a political right that is freedom of information.
The Finnish Institute continues its work with open knowledge in all its forms and is happy to be a partner organisation in the upcoming Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki. Final report “Being Open About Data – analysis of the UK open data policies and applicability of data” can be read and downloaded here.
Antti Halonen
Fellow at the Finnish Institute, author of “Being Open About Data”

London is Entering a Golden Age of Social Investment

The Director of SharedImpact, Paul Cheng, blogs about Social Investments.
For over 300 years, London has been one of the world’s great centres of financial innovation. Ideas, for example, about how to manage financial risk through structures such as companies limited by shares and the concept of insurance were developed and refined by pioneering financiers in the London coffee houses of 18th century England.

In 2012, London finds itself at the forefront of social investment – leading the world in pioneering developments such as Big Society Capital (the world’s first social central bank), social impact bonds, charitable bonds, a variety of impact funds and new market platforms such as SharedImpact, the Social Stock Exchange and Ethex for selling, marketing and refinancing social investment products.

There is a sense that we are about to enter a golden age of social investment in the UK. Yet there is a real danger that this market could go horribly wrong – and that the hype may triumph of the reality.

So while it is heartening to see more mainstream pools of capital seeking to engage in impact investing, there are also good reasons to be worried about how much of this capital will actually produce positive social change. Will investors choose speed of growth, rather than depth of impact? Will early failures be used as reasons to maintain the status quo? Will poor thinking and clumsy execution make our sector one of ‘feel good’ rather than ‘do good’?

Moreover, what do we mean by “social investment”? Properly defined, social investment is the deployment of capital for social purpose – and which seeks a financial return (but not a profit-maximising one). This last point is often misunderstood. For businesses, profit is an end in itself. For charities, profit (or “surplus”) should merely be a means to an end – or to the fulfilment of a social mission.

We should remind ourselves that the fundamental problem which social investment is trying to address is lack of access to capital.

Charities and social enterprises are chronically undercapitalised. For the most part, they find themselves limited to just one financial instrument – the charitable donation – and most of what they do is financed on a pay-as-you-go basis. The charity sector lives hand-to-mouth – and the sector looks more like a subsistence economy than a vibrant market.

This is in direct contrast to the way virtually everything else of value gets created. No one buys or builds a house without financing it. Almost every business, large and small, at least attempts to make prudent use of debt and equity. But charities are risk-averse, and frequently unaware of the broader range of financial tools that may be available.

As a result, because charities are undercapitalised, they struggle to achieve their social objectives, which in turn makes it less likely they will receive the resources they need. And so the cycle continues.

Social investment aims to put an end to this vicious circle.

Paul Cheng,
Director of SharedImpact (

The Future of Openness or the Age of Uncertainty?

Mikael Järvelin from the Finnish Institute in London blogs about censorship in modern society.

On the 29th of February 2012 London School of Economics organized a panel discussion on the topic ‘Censorship in an Age of Freedom’. Charlie Beckett, the director of Polis and the author of a book ‘Wikileaks: News in the Networked Era’, Heather Brooke, investigative journalist and the author of ‘The Revolution Will Be Digitized’ and Nick Cohen, journalist and author of ‘You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship In an Age of Freedom’ held a discussion on censorship in today’s society based on their newly published books. This blog post contemplates the ideas of that discussion. At the same time as people cheer for opening of government data, governments are taking drastic measures to conceal unwanted information offered by Wikileaks and the likeminded websites.

There are three things in the world that are being censored more than anything else: God, state and money. Everyone is familiar with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the consequences that writing a book about religion can cause. Religion remains one of the main targets of censorships in the world. In totalitarian states with strong dictatorship, the questioning of the political leaders and actions of the state are punishable by law. Possibly the most common type of censorship in today’s society lies however in the world of business. People in banking industry for example are unable to question or criticise their companies. This could lead to being fired and never being able to return to work in the field of banking. Many human rights violations are being silenced in the face of huge amounts of money as well. With the development of Internet and new information channels, censorship has found new manifestations.

The new technology enables more people to be involved in gathering and sharing of information. The future of journalism could very well be in Wikileaks type of organisations that are harder to censor than traditional newspapers or television programmes. Information is globally more accessible and more detailed. However, this quantity of information brings uncertainty along. Information that is being published on the web is less controlled, thus making the information less reliable. Who is to say whether all the measures have been taken to ensure that the information in blogs or wiki-pages is from a reliable source? Fact checking is possibly the most important feature of serious journalism. How can we be sure, that we receive true information in the age where basically anyone can be a journalist?

Censoring of web pages may be harder than censoring of newspapers, but we can’t blame governments for not trying. More and more blacklists are being introduced in the world and we are not talking about dictator-run totalitarian states, but our very familiar western democracies as well. Blacklists were first introduced by human rights organisations as a way to block illegal web sites such as those that display child pornography. The problem is that the blacklists are not in the hands of human rights organisations any more but in the hands of the police and governments. Even though some restrictions are probably necessary, who is to say if only the really harmful web pages are being filtered? Censorship can easily lead to a society, where all the information is controlled and the opposition of the state is silenced. The very enabling of censorship casts a threat for the freedom of speech.

Today, the Internet is not run by any state or global organisation such as the UN. The Internet is more and more ruled by various corporations. To fully utilise the Internet, we need to use services provided by multinational corporations. People leave their digital footprints by using social media and sharing information about themselves on-line. The large corporations like Google or Facebook have huge amount of information about people, and they can easily take advantage for that information. How can we be sure that search engines take us to the source of all the necessary information and not only to the pages that are considered appropriate?

Newspaper sales are decreasing and people are turning to the Internet to find news. Blogs are there to offer information of all sorts, but as already noted, the content may be unreliable. It is up to us all, as educated citizens to evaluate the information that we find and call for reliable and accurate news. We must share our knowledge with others without asking for something in return. We need to check the facts behind the things we write or say publicly. We now have all the tools for sharing huge amount of information globally, but we need to make sure that the future of information leads us to a new age of openness and not to the age of uncertainty.

Mikael Järvelin
The Finnish Institute In London

Service Design – An approach to Better Public Services?

Director of Administration and Finance in the City of Jyväskylä, Heli Leinonkoski, gives a Civil Servants view on Service Design.

That was the question on my mind when I first time heard about the discipline called Service Design – only a year and a few months ago. As a civil servant I wondered if this was the way to connect citizens more closely to the service development work we do at the local government level. I became immediately interested. So much that in two months, February 2011, I was already in London chasing up what Service Design is really about. Thanks for that arrangement go for Mr Jussi Nissilä, Programme Director at the Finnish Institute in London and the City of Jyväskylä, my employer in Finland.

Did I get the answer to my question during my stay in London? I think so. Because of my background I had a very practical approach to Service Design and I really wanted to know how it works in practice. Does it help me and my fellow civil servants in public sector challenges? After talking to several design linked people I was pleased to realise that it was not about a rocket science and it did not taste theoretical. The Service Design helps people to piece together a problem, provides tools to find the solution and makes this all using communication, visualisation and co-creation. The tools are logical and understandable or what else you can say for example about the Desktop Walkthrough -tool where Lego figures act out common scenarious of a service process.

From the civil servant’s point of view the most fascinating feature in Service Design is that the tools and methods are also applicable in tackling complex social issues, such as youth marginalisation or the welfare of senior citizens. Furthermore the methods can be used in finding ways to change people’s behaviour in order to generate positive, sustainable social impacts, e.g. reducing water consumption.

In UK there are brilliant examples of public sector cases in which Service Design tools have been used successfully. One of the best-known is SILK, Social Innovation Lab for Kent. The team of three, innovative women in Kent County Council has definitely shown how the gap between a council and citizens can be reduced. Read about the projects at SILK’s website:

As a civil servant I believe that there is potential for using design methods to increase mutual confidence also between civil servants and political decision-makers. In financially hard times, like these days, there are difficult issues to be resolved in councils: radical cut-backs and savings, re-allocation of resources even redundancies. A new, refreshing approach would be more than welcome. I find design methods useful also in cases where in-house processes, like HR or internal invoicing, spanning different departments have to be rationalised. Using service design tools to visualise processes can help to understand how things flow within the organisation, and whether there is anything that can be simplified.

In Finland the town-planning process is strictly regulated by the Land Use and Building Act. The hearing is too often carried out solely because the rules say so. Critical opinions are considered as a burden that slows the process. To make the whole process easier, both for citizens and for planning architects, there should be true co-planning and more communicative methods in the early stages. Finnish cities like Helsinki and Jyväskylä have used new interactive methods in some town-planning cases and the experiences have been really positive. Hope this trend is going to continue.

On the whole the Service Design is worth of taking serious at the public sector. We civil servants too often think that we know what people need and unfortunately that is mainly based on box-ticking surveys. We need to look at services through the eyes of the people whom those services are intended, and we need a deeper understanding of how the services we deliver affect people’s everyday lives.  As Katherine Kerswell, Chief Executive of Northamptonshire County Council, said: “We are very privileged in local government that we not only deliver services but what we deliver can change lives and communities”. The question is: do we recognise the responsibility which is included in this privilege and genuinely co-design services around people? Should we put a little bit more effort to understanding people’s lives and what really matters? Service Design offers tools – it is up to us whether we use them or not.

Heli Leinonkoski
Director of Administration and Finance
The City of Jyväskylä, Urban Design and Infrastructure
 “Service Design – An Approach to Better Public Services? A Civil Servant’s View” by Heli Leinonkoski was published on the 5th of March 2012 in the Working Papers Series of The Finnish Institute in London and may be downloaded here.

Open Data Monthly Review 02/2012

A review of latest news and blog posts in the field of open data.


Open data consultation exposes IT cost and capability worries
The Cabinet Office has revealed concern over whether the public sector’s IT is up to the job of supporting more transparency, from responses to last year’s open data consultation.

Is open data under threat?
Many advocates of open data were dismayed by developments in 2011
On the face of it, 2011 was a very good year for the open data movement, which argues that certain information, such as non-personal government data, is more valuable when it is shared freely. In the chancellor’s Autumn Statement in November, amid public sector pay caps and downgraded growth forecasts, George Osborne announced that the government is to create an Open Data Institute, chaired by open data advocates Tim Berners-Lee and Nigel Shadbolt.

OKF Software Chosen to Power Open Data Portal
The Open Knowledge Foundation’s CKAN software has been chosen to power the European Commission’s new open data portal. The article reports, “The European Commission (EC) has awarded a contract to create an open data portal website, where data produced by European Commission services will be freely available.

Open data tsar calls for change in government mentality

The government needs to move to a “presume to publish” mentality to keep its much touted open data strategy alive, according to one of its key information advisors, Nigel Shadbolt.

Viability of Open Data plans questioned
Responses to the Cabinet Office’s Open Data plans have questioned whether government IT systems and staff can deliver an enhanced “right to data.”
The Making Open Data Real consultation, published last August, is part of the government’s drive to publish more data across the public sector and to stimulate a market for its use.

Media entrepreneur leads open data city audit

An audit of open data activity by local authorities in England’s largest 40 cities is being carried out by the organiser of the UK’s first open data cities conference, with initial findings to be revealed in April.

Wandsworth open council: better data for armchair auditors
Paul Martin, chief executive of Wandsworth council, says raw data is meaningless. The Open Council initiative aims to make it comprehensible. There is now a huge quantity of information about public services and spending in the public domain – but it is impossible to make sense of it.

Europeana opens up Europe’s cultural data for innovators
Europeana, an online resource whereby people can explore the digital resources of Europe’s museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections, has published data pertaining to 2.4m objects for the first time under an open metadata licence.

The problem with Open Data
Recent initiatives have dramatically increased the range of previously “closed” data being made “open” by the government, including data sets on travel, weather and healthcare. This data can then be used by anyone to create great new products, business opportunities and community services.

From open data to a closed Internet

Within the tech community, there is much angst about whether the web is about to be “closed”. Will it be controlled by companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google, or will it remain “open” to all? Will individuals be able to reach any content they choose? Will developers be able to serve users on any platform?

Open data: now it’s business’s turn, says Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron has hailed his government’s pioneering of open data as a money-spinner for private companies. In a speech billed as a fierce defence of business, the prime minister pointed to a “new industry springing up”, to interpret the blizzard of information flowing from Whitehall. Since coming to power, Cameron’s government has made it possible for the outside world to view more than 35,000 files, through the website

Open Knowledge Releases Open Data Handbook 1.0
The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) announced the 1.0 release of the Open Data Handbook today. The 1.0 release is the culmination of a project that started in October 2010 at a book sprint in Berlin as the Open Data Manual. The Open Data Handbook provides the introduction to what open data is, why organizations (particularly government) would be interested in providing open data, and how to go about it.

New Contest: Making the Most of Open Data in Finland
The Open Knowledge Foundation has announced a new Finnish data journalism app contest. THe contest is being organized by Finland’s leading national newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, in order to find better data visualizations. The post states, “For many journalists today, it’s not a lack of open data that’s the problem, but a lack of the skills and off-the-shelf visualizations needed to make that open data useful to them. A year ago, the Finnish government decided that in principle all data generated with taxpayer money should be free.”

Open data – forward strategy
A few people from central government have asked to talk to me recently about open data as they look at their strategy beyond legislation. I thought I would write down repeated themes to save on more meetings.  The conversation is normally about how data can be used for the public good as opposed to, say commercial re-use and generally geeing people up to reuse open data that one bit of government sweated blood to get another bit of government to publish.

EIF Dinner Debate: Open Data
The EIF (European Internet Foundation) hosted a dinner debate on Open Data, also known as the Public Sector Information (PSI), at the European Parliament, Brussels on Tuesday 24th January 2012. Attendees came from a broad range of commerce (including Microsoft, Facebook and Google), education, NGOs, national and regional government departments, and the European Commission and European Parliament.


How can visualization help citizens use open data?
Open data refers to the free access and reuse of government data — excluding private information such as personal medical data. The concept of establishing a portal for open data is fairly new. (

Announcing the School of Data
Today, we’re announcing plans for a School of Data. The School will be a joint venture between the Open Knowledge Foundation and Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU). We also welcome other organizations who would like to participate.

How to get your city to pass an open government policy

Today, the Raleigh City Council passed an Open Source Government Resolution, unanimously, promoting the use of open source software and open data. The resolution includes language that puts open source software on the same playing field as proprietary software in the procurement process. It also establishes an open data catalog to house data available from the city.  

From Freedom of Information to Open data … for open accountability
How is the open Web been changing accountability and transparency? Filipe is going to share two ideas: 1. The Web is making the Freedom of Information Act (FOIOA) obsolete. 2. An open data policy is necessary to keep freedom of information up to date, and to move toward open accountability.

Open data is going global
More than 50 countries have now signed up to making data more open.
In our last post we talked about the release of data from the Department for Education and how important it was for many people in the UK. However, the purpose of this blog is to spread our net wider as we look to how we can improve transparency across the world. Some might ask why the UK should be interested in other countries and their work on transparency. Can we really gain anything from working with them? Well, quite simply yes. We have much to learn and much to share.

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