Mid January I blogged about the project on open government data I am currently involved in for the Dutch Ministry for the Interior. Meanwhile James Burke and I are in the midst of it, and I thought it would be nice to share a few insights we gained, as well as some examples we found.
First of all, just as Chris Messina expressed recently, there is a lot going on around government opening up and transparancy. We found the same when we started scouting here in the Netherlands. There are quite a few initiatives going on in different sectors, bumping into different obstacles and problems, and generally not being aware of eachother and the opportunity to learn from eachother.
The results we’re looking for
What we set out to do in this project is fourfold:
We talked to lots of people these past weeks. People from different government ministries, as well as more operational branches (such as RWS, responsible for the national roads and waterways, or RIVM, a research body for health and environment data), or organisations that are formally independent but working on government mandates (such as CBS, the central bureau for statistics). What stood out for me was that currently only two forms of data sharing seem to be on the radar of most people we talked to. One is the publication of data ‘as is’ with no explanation at all, just the database tables, usually for static or historic data. At the same time people have a lot of reservations around doing it this way as people might misinterpret the meaning of database fields. The other is the publication of data by adding their own presentation layer (and no actual access by others to the data). While interesting usually a lot of costs are involved, and data is presented in a way that made sense to the people owning the data and not necessarily to people looking at the site. API’s are basically in the middle of those two options, giving regulated but otherwise open access to the real live data. So that people can come up with uses for it that the originator of the data could not imagine, or would not put up resources for.
There are some exceptions, that choose that middle road. There are XML interfaces e.g. to the Dutch State almanac (xml), giving all addresses of public institutions, as well as to all waste transports across the country (Web app).
In several instances also we found eagerness to create API’s but no means to do it. That’s where our project is glad to help, even if we are not sure creating an API is our own preferred option.
Different issues to deal with
There is a number of issues that we come across in all conversations we talked to. Sometimes these issues are used to excuse inactivity, or a source of confusion as to what is possible and allowed. In general however when opening up data sources you have to always make some decisions on these issues. They are privacy, copyright, technology, organisation, and markets. I will go into these issues in more detail in other postings.
Network forming is the way forward
We’ve found a lot of different initiatives around opening up data in different places within government. None of them are connected or necessarily aware of each other. They do all have experiences that augment each other, and it is worth sharing them by connecting the people we met. Bringing the network together, and possibly form a core that can grow into a community of open data practices is I think the way forward. Part of the project is providing a path forward, and it will be based on network forming.
Bringing people together around Open Data, at Ministry for the Interior. Photo: Anne-Marie IJsenbruk
Explaining the Open Data project at ‘Open Coffee’ network meeting for civil servants interested in Web2.0. Photo: Davied van Berlo