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”

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

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