A couple of days ago I was in beautiful Campidoglio – Rome Capital Hill and home to the Municipality – to discuss the best strategies to promote open government data use, based on the results of the EU projects Open4Citizens (now creating the European Network of OpenDataLabs).
The workshop was interesting as it put together different perspectives on open data in the process of being used – from information management to design, to art and culture to citizens rights. What I like about open data is that it is hard to trace the boundaries of it as a topic, especially when the data leave the premises of the government and finally “come to life” to become part of a much larger ecosystem.
Ecosystem was indeed one of the keywords of the day. An open data ecosystem is “an evolving, self-organizing system of feedback and adjustment among actors and processes” (ref), which should transform open data into an opportunity to increase government accountability and foster innovation.
The question was how to create new ecosystems to make the most of the data that the governments release.
While I totally agree that open data ecosystems often are not there and should be created, I also think that data ecosystems (‘closed’ data ecosystems), in many cases, have always been there. I think we should consider the evolution from a scenario when data were shared only within government and a selected number of external actors, to the ideal situation in which data are open, meaningful and accessible enough to be used by a large community of interested people.
In many instances, data ecosystems that are in place before the release of open data tell us many things about how new actors can be involved and how the relationships among existing actors may change. This is essential information for an open data policy.
Here I would like to show two stages of this evolution, with reference to open government data on public policy or public spending, used by citizens, NGOs, and local communities to hold their government accountable.
Stage 1 – Closed data
This is the stage when there is no open data portal or data available. This does not mean that the government just keep the data totally secret. Most of the times, government agencies collect the data for administrative purposes, and use it to plan public policies or services with the aim of being useful to the citizens. Highly detailed data are transmitted, for example, to public policy experts to design or evaluate the policies. Data are sent to the courts, official auditors, the parliament, or other levels of government with accountability purposes or to prevent corruption. Well, this is something everyone can expect from its government.
But data is also handed on to external actors, in different forms. Governments often have to respond to questions and demands from the media, which act as infomediaries and connect government information to the citizens. Journalists often receive data on policy results or controversial issues in an aggregate form and with an interpretation of the data that is sometimes difficult to challenge without the access to the original data. Media investigations are useful nonetheless to help policy makers do better.
Sometimes the policy mechanisms are good enough to include practices of participation that are open to representatives of civil society. While this is good, the risk that the representatives are chosen from the network of the “usual suspects” – experts of the specific policy domain and long-time friends of government institutions – is high. This is why the line between the citizens and the representatives of civil society is dotted in the figure.
Furthermore, civil society is given only a fraction of the data available, often in the form of aggregated figures.
Finally, researchers and external “evaluators” of public policies often get access to the data on projects and services that were funded. However, this a long and difficult process. You have to file a proper request. Important variables could be excluded from the extraction. Sometimes it is not even clear how to get the data – crucial information about the very existence and characteristic of the data is nowhere online.
Stage 2 – Open Data
In this ideal open data scenario, the open data providers publish high-quality and highly detailed information to all the interested parties. Citizens enjoy a direct access to the data and can use them without restrictions. Well, the limits are their capacity to understand and interpret them. Thanks to the data on public spending, for example, citizens have the opportunity to express a judgment on government projects or services, and to collaborate to make this spending more effective.
Infomediaries can be very useful not only to “translate” the data into visualizations and interesting stories – more accessible to people – but also, thanks to civic technology and civic media, to aggregate the citizen feedback on public policies and bring it to the attention of the policy makers in a way that is easier for them to interpret, integrate into existing information systems, and then act upon.
Also researchers are happy to get updated information and can provide better insights.
Stages of an evolution
In stage 1, data were already shared among a network of selected actors. The network was composed of both institutional entities from within government and external users. So there was indeed an ecosystem that had an influence on data design, ways of sharing it, and data quality.
Once the data are opened, the network from stage 1 is still there, but it is much bigger. In stage 2, it includes more actors with better information and stronger connections. Local communities, NGOs, students, and individual citizens can use highly detailed data that were previously accessible only to selected government experts. Infomediaries have the possibility to create new ways of crowdsourcing citizen feedback and play a more important role in steering public policies.
What happened in the transition from stage 1 to stage 2 is that the policy network of that public policy evolved from a closed network to a potentially more inclusive one.