Spreading the Word about Open Government Data

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One of the most amazing - and heartening - developments in the world of openness recently has been the emergence of the open government movement. Although still in its early stages, this will potentially have important ramifications for business, since one of the ideas at its heart is the opening up of government datasets for anyone to use and build on - including for commercial purposes (depending on the particular licences). The UK and US are leading the way in this sphere, and an important question is to what extent the experiences of these two countries can be generalised.

That's what a new report called the "Open Data Study" seeks to explore. It's quite short - just over 50 pages, and well-worth reading as a description of how exactly we got to where we are today, and relatively quickly, and where we might go now. Here's its stated aim:

This research explores the feasibility of advocating for open government data catalogues in middle income and developing countries. Its aim is to identify the advocacy strategies used in the US and UK data.gov and data.gov.uk initiatives, with a view to building a set of criteria that predict the success of similar initiatives in other countries and provide a template strategy to opening government data.

And here are its summary conclusions:

The report finds that in both the US and UK, a three-tiered drive was at play. The three groups of actors who were crucial to the projects’ success were: Civil society, and in particular a small and motivated group of “civic hackers”1; An engaged and well-resourced “middle layer” of skilled government bureaucrats; and A top-level mandate, motivated by either an outside force (in the case of the UK) or a refreshed political administration hungry for change (in the US).

As Tim Berners-Lee observed in interview “It has to start at the top, it has to start in the middle and it has to start at the bottom.” The conclusion to this report strengthens that assertion, and warns those attempting to mirror the successes of the UK and US projects not to neglect any of these three layers of influence.

What's interesting about this is that it maps neatly on to the open source experience in the enterprise. There, too, there were three essential constituencies: hackers at the bottom, who started using free software - generally without asking permission to do so; middle managers, who needed to be convinced that it was going to help them in their day-to-day work, and the senior management, who had to be comfortable with this kind of radical shift, not least from a legal viewpoint.

The Open Data report is notable for two reasons. First, it provides the most complete description so far of how the two main open government data initiatives - that in the UK and the US - came to be, told often in the words of the key people who made it happen. It also has much to say about how those experiences might be applied elsewhere – with the caveat that things might be different in certain key respects. I found the information about fledgling efforts in far-flung parts of the world fascinating, not least stories like this:

“In 2003, I was asked by the new USAID administrator in Kigali to go sit down with the head of the Rwandan Customs service and my task was to try to figure out why the Rwandan Customs service hadn’t computerised. They’d gotten all the money from the US government, the system had been on the ground, installed for 18 months; no one was using it. And I spent four hours with the director of the Customs service and, for three hours, he basically told me it was hard, it was difficult, people didn’t want to use it, there were problems with it. Finally, he got up, he closed the door to his office, and he said, ‘Look, I don’t want to get killed and I don’t want you to get killed’ and then proceeded to explain to me that corruption in the Customs service was so rife within Rwanda that the computerisation of it would reveal who’s stealing what and that there was so much money at play that he literally feared for his life if he used the system. So, it’s important to realize that in some these cases, it’s not just something simple.”

Open data can be a matter of life of death for some, apparently.

On a slightly more positive note, it's good to see that at the time of the report, the data.gov.uk site had around 3,241 datasets, while the data.gov site had only 1,284 datasets - a rare case where the UK is actually ahead of the US. Let's hope that continues with the new incumbents here, and that openness of all kinds flourishes throughout government.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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