​Open Data is the Start of Open Government

At this week’s Technology in Government conference, held at the National Convention Centre in Canberra, there was a clear, recurring theme in the presentation I attended.

Government is looking for ways to make services and data more accessible, easier to use and more secure.

David Eaves, a Fellow and Adjunct Professor from the Kennedy School of Government out of Harvard University discussed how open data is a key element of this more open government strategy and how it’s not only changing the way the public interacts with government agencies but how government agencies are operating.

Eaves says open data was sold to us on the back of a number of promises. But he says the success of open data projects can be judged through four different lenses: apps, analysis, internal, and vendors.

Apps are evidence of local hacking – where individuals take data and use it in an innovative way. Unlike older development models, where the planning process and negotiation for access to data could take months or years, apps can be created quickly and cheaply.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to scale or that you’re going to be using it tomorrow,” Eaves says.

What’s key is that the app takes the data and makes it more accessible or useful. For example, he pointed to governments in other jurisdictions presenting budget data as bubbles rather than a line-by-line ledger. Larger bubbles represented larger amounts of money, making it far easier for constituents to see where their taxes are going.

In Canada, the Hansard – the transcripts of parliamentary discussions – has been made into a web app that allows people to search for comments made by the name of the politician so they can easily find what their local representative’s comments were.

The system works so well that a significant proportion of the users come from inside government – places that have had easy access to the Hansard but now have a much easier way to conduct analysis.

Vendors have found ways to exploit this data as well. And while delivering them profits, they have also been able to deliver great value to the public at a far lower expense than before. For example, the SeeClickFix app that many overseas local governments use makes it easy for the public to report graffiti, potholes, broken paths and other issues.

Although Eaves didn’t mention them, local developers Outware Mobile (http://www.outware.com.au) created a similar app before SeeClickFix that is used by Australian councils called SnapSendSolve.

In the past, there was often a significant negotiation involved in allowing access to data across government departments. But open data is changing that says Eaves. He says there is a lot of evidence that it reduces friction in sharing information between government departments. And it leads to fewer arguments and disputes.

“No one can complain when you use open data," he says.

One of the challenges, says Eaves, is governments are locked into thinking about data in the form of documents. When the photocopier was invented it made the task of information sharing easy for governments as that suited the way they think.

Eaves says open data needs to be at the bottom of the stack with apps running over the data rather that apps being created first and then filled with data. He also advocates building apps in advance of demand as the availability of apps that make data more accessible and usable will drive their demand.

He did have some warnings though. As data becomes more accessible and people start doing more analysis, assumptions will be challenged and the results of analyses will become politicised.

He cited the redrawing of electoral boundaries – gerrymanders – as an example of how data can be manipulated to create specific political outcomes.

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