At State of the Net yesterday I used the concept of macroscopes. I talked about how many people don’t really feel where their place is in the face of global changes, like climate change, ageing, the pressures on rules and institutions, the apparent precarity of global financial systems. That many feel whatever their actions, they will not have influence on those changes. That many feel so much of the change around them is being done to them, merely happens to them, like the weather.
Macroscopes provide a perspective that may address such feelings of being powerless, and helps us in the search for meaning.

Macroscopes, being the opposite of microscopes, allow us to see how our personal situation fits in a wider global whole. The term comes from John Thackara in the context of social end ecological design. He says a macroscope “allows us to see what the aggregation of many small interactions looks like when added together”. It makes the processes and systems that surrounds us visible and knowable.

I first encountered the term macroscope at the 2009 Reboot conference in Copenhagen where Matt Webb in his opening keynote invoked Thackara.
Matt Webb also rephrased what a macroscope is, and said “a macroscope shows you where you are, and where within something much bigger, simultaneously. To understand something much bigger than you in a human way, at human scale, in your heart.” His way of phrasing it stayed with me in the past years. I like it very much because it adds human emotion to the concept of macroscopes. It provides us with a place we feel we have, a sense of meaning. As meaning is deeply emotional.

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
Seeing the small …

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
and the bigger picture simultaneously. (Chuck Close self portrait 1995, at Drents Museum)

Later in his on stage conversation at State of the Net, Dave Winer remarked that for Donald Trump’s base MAGA is such a source of meaning, and I think he’s right. Even though it’s mostly an expression of hope that I typified in my talk as salvationism. (Someone will come along and make everything better, a populist, an authoritarian, a deity, or speakers pontificating on stage.) I’ve encountered macroscopes that worked for people in organisations. But sometimes they can appear very contrived viewed from the outside. The man who cleans the urinals at an airport and says he’s ensuring 40 million people per year have a pleasant and safe trip, clearly is using a macroscope effectively. It’s one I can empathise with as aiming for great hospitality, but it also feels a bit contrived as many other things at an airport, such as the cattle prodding at security and the leg room on your plane so clearly don’t chime with it. In the Netherlands I encountered two examples of working macroscopes. Everyone I encountered at the Court of Audit reflexively compares every idea and proposal to the way their institution’s role is described in the constitution. Not out of caution, but out of feeling a real sense of purpose as working on behalf of the people to check how government spends its money. The other one was the motto of the government engineering department responsible for water works and coastal defences, “Keeping our feet dry”. With so much of our country below sea level, and the catastrophic floods of 1953 seared in our collective memory, it’s a highly evocative macroscope that draws an immediate emotional response. They since watered it down, and now it’s back to something bloodless and bland, likely resulting from a dreary mission statement workshop.

In my talk I positioned networked agency as a macroscope. Globe spanning digital networks and our human networks in my mind are very similar in the way they behave, and hugely overlapping. So much so they can be treated as one, we should think in terms of human digital networks. There is meaning, the deeply felt kind of meaning, to be found in doing something together with a group. There’s also a tremendous sense of power to be felt from the ability to solve something for yourself as a group. Seeing your group as part, as a distinctive node or local manifestation, of the earth-wide human digital network allows you to act in your own way as part of global changes, and see the interdependencies. That also let’s you see how to build upon the opportunities that emerge from the global network, while being able to disconnect or shield yourself from negative things propagating over the network. Hence my call to build tools (technologies and methods) that are useful on their own within a group, as a singular instance, but more useful when federated with other instances across the global network. Tools shaped like that mean no-one but the group using it itself can switch their tools off, and the group can afford to disconnect from the wider whole on occasion.

Today I am enjoying the 2018 edition of the State of the Net conference, in Italy. Organised by Beniamino Pagliaro, Paolo Valdemarin and Sergio Maistrello.

sotn2018
Beniamino Pagliaro opening the conference this morning

This morning I provided a key note on Networked Agency, where I talked about rediscovering our ability to act. As networked groups, in real and meaningful contexts as the unit of agency. For that to be possible our tools, both technologies and methods, need to work for groups, be much easier to access. They also need to work both as a local instance as well as federated across contexts. From it striking power (classic agency) flows, agility to use and leverage the useful things coming at us over the networks, and resilience to mitigate the negative consequences that come at us over those same networks.

The slides are below.

[UPDATE]
The videos of State of the Net are online, including the video of my talk.


[/UPDATE]

(Disclosure) Paolo is a long time friend and I had the privilege of contributing to previous editions in 2012 (Trieste) and 2015 (Milano). I’m also a member of the conference’s steering committee.

Today I was at a session at the Ministry for Interior Affairs in The Hague on the GDPR, organised by the center of expertise on open government.
It made me realise how I actually approach the GDPR, and how I see all the overblown reactions to it, like sending all of us a heap of mail to re-request consent where none’s needed, or taking your website or personal blog even offline. I find I approach the GDPR like I approach a quality assurance (QA) system.

One key change with the GDPR is that organisations can now be audited concerning their preventive data protection measures, which of course already mimics QA. (Next to that the GDPR is mostly an incremental change to the previous law, except for the people described by your data having articulated rights that apply globally, and having a new set of teeth in the form of substantial penalties.)

AVG mindmap
My colleague Paul facilitated the session and showed this mindmap of GDPR aspects. I think it misses the more future oriented parts.

The session today had three brief presentations.

In one a student showed some results from his thesis research on the implementation of the GDPR, in which he had spoken with a lot of data protection officers or DPO’s. These are mandatory roles for all public sector bodies, and also mandatory for some specific types of data processing companies. One of the surprising outcomes is that some of these DPO’s saw themselves, and were seen as, ‘outposts’ of the data protection authority, in other words seen as enforcers or even potentially as moles. This is not conducive to a DPO fulfilling the part of its role in raising awareness of and sensitivity to data protection issues. This strongly reminded me of when 20 years ago I was involved in creating a QA system from scratch for my then employer. Some of my colleagues saw the role of the quality assurance manager as policing their work. It took effort to show how we were not building a straightjacket around them that kept them within strict boundaries, but providing a solid skeleton to grow on, and move faster. Where audits are not hunts for breaches of compliance but a way to make emergent changes in the way people worked visible, and incorporate professionally justified ones in that skeleton.

In another presentation a civil servant of the Ministry involved in creating a register of all person related data being processed. What stood out most for me was the (rightly) pragmatic approach they took with describing current practices and data collections inside the organisation. This is a key element of QA as well. You work from descriptions of what happens, and not at what ’should’ happen or ‘ideally’ happens. QA is a practice rooted in pragmatism, where once that practice is described and agreed it will be audited.
Of course in the case of the Ministry it helps that they only have tasks mandated by law, and therefore the grounds for processing are clear by default, and if not the data should not be collected. This reduces the range of potential grey areas. Similarly for security measures, they already need to adhere to national security guidelines (called the national baseline information security), which likewise helps with avoiding new measures, proves compliance for them, and provides an auditable security requirement to go with it. This no doubt helped them to be able to take that pragmatic approach. Pragmatism is at the core of QA as well, it takes its cues from what is really happening in the organisation, what the professionals are really doing.

A third one dealt with open standards for both processes and technologies by the national Forum for Standardisation. Since 2008 a growing list of currently some 40 or so standards is mandatory for Dutch public sector bodies. In this list of standards you find a range of elements that are ready made to help with GDPR compliance. In terms of support for the rights of those described by the data, such as the right to export and portability for instance, or in terms of preventive technological security measures, and ‘by design’ data protection measures. Some of these are ISO norms themselves, or, as the mentioned national baseline information security, a compliant derivative of such ISO norms.

These elements, the ‘police’ vs ‘counsel’ perspective on the rol of a DPO, the pragmatism that needs to underpin actions, and the building blocks readily to be found elsewhere in your own practice already based on QA principles, made me realise and better articulate how I’ve been viewing the GDPR all along. As a quality assurance system for data protection.

With a quality assurance system you can still famously produce concrete swimming vests, but it will be at least done consistently. Likewise with GDPR you will still be able to do all kinds of things with data. Big Data and developing machine learning systems are hard but hopefully worthwile to do. With GDPR it will just be hard in a slightly different way, but it will also be helped by establishing some baselines and testing core assumptions. While making your purposes and ways of working available for scrutiny. Introducing QA upon its introduction does not change the way an organisation works, unless it really doesn’t have its house in order. Likewise the GDPR won’t change your organisation much if you have your house in order either.

From the QA perspective on GDPR, it is perfectly clear why it has a moving baseline (through its ‘by design’ and ‘state of the art’ requirements). From the QA perspective on GDPR it is perfectly clear what the connection is to how Europe is positioning itself geopolitically in the race concerning AI. The policing perspective after all only leads to a luddite stance concerning AI, which is not what the EU is doing, far from it. From that it is clear how the legislator intends the thrust of GDPR. As QA really.

Will be speaking at State of the Net (SOTN) next month, in Trieste, about networked agency. I’m also on the steering committee of SOTN.
I just also confirmed speaking at the opening of the FOSS4GNL conference in July on ethics, local societal impact and shifting landscapes. (I was invited based on my keynote at the global FOSS4G in 2016)

Elmine and I are happy to ‘officially’ announce the Smart Stuff That Matters (STM18) unconference!
Friday August 31st (conference), and Saturday September 1st (BBQ party) are the dates. Our home in Amersfoort is the location.

This 4th ‘Stuff That Matters’ conference will be in honor of Elmine’s 40th birthday. Let’s throw her and yourself a party to remember. It’s the smart thing to do 😉

Smart Stuff That Matters will be about us, the things we care about, and the tools and behaviour we think we need to shape our lives in a complex world and to respond locally to global challenges.

Smartness isn’t limited to technology, or to your ‘smart home’ filled with gadgets. What is smart in the context of your community, your family, and how you relate to your city, or the country you live in? What is the smartest way to tap into the global networks and knowledge we now have access to? Yet shield yourself against some of the cascading problems too?

What provides you and the people around you with meaningful ways to decide, learn, act and organise together? (the thing I call networked agency) What skills and digital literacies are needed for you to consider yourself a ‘smart citizen’?

How do we need to (re-)shape tools so they become active extensions of ourselves, within our own scope of control?
Some of the smartest technologies are actually ‘dumb’ in the sense that they are passive technologies. Other technologies billed as smart aren’t so much in practice, such as the eternal internet-connected fridge or sticking Amazon dash buttons all over your house.

The stuff that matters is not just technology but how we ourselves take action, as part of our communities and networks. Technology and different ways of doing things can help us and make us smarter.

Invitations will be coming soon
Smart Stuff That Matters is a by invitation only event. There is no attendance fee, but a donation box will be present. We will start sending out invitations in the coming week, so watch your inboxes! If you’d like to receive an invitation feel free to get in touch and let me know.

Find more info in the menu above under STM18.

Stay tuned!

#stm18

Although objectively speaking we were just in an overcrowded family home,
it felt like we were in a huge and spacious conference centre. …

The buzz of all those exciting and excited people
expressing and comparing their multitude of opinions,
made us literally forget where we were.
(Aldo about the 2010 event)

Thomas Opening Reboot
Thomas opening Reboot, with my name as sponsor on the banner

Last night at my birthday party one of the guests was Sam. He had just finished his Masters in 2009, when I invited him to Reboot in Copenhagen. A conference I first visited in 2005, which became a turning point in my professional life. In 2009 I was a main sponsor, and one of the perks was bringing people to the conference for free. Sam was one of them. At my birthday party he told me how that had been a pivotal point for him, an eye opening experience so shortly after his masters. He went on to create similarly inspiring events in the Netherlands with others, and remarked how spoilt he was with being able to do that. Awesome how paying the spirit of Reboot forward has influenced people till this day.

My current thinking about what to bring to my open data and data governance work, as well as to technology development, especially in the context of networked agency, can be summarised under the moniker ‘ethics by design’. In a practical sense this means setting non-functional requirements at the start of a design or development process, or when tweaking or altering existing systems and processes. Non-functional requirements that reflect the values you want to safeguard or ensure, or potential negative consequences you want to mitigate. Privacy, power asymmetries, individual autonomy, equality, and democratic control are examples of this.

Today I attended the ‘Big Data Festival’ in The Hague, organised by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. Here several government organisations presented themselves and the work they do using data as an intensive resource. Stuff that speaks to the technologist in me. In parallel there were various presentations and workshops, and there I was most interested in what was said about ethical issues around data.

Author and interviewer Bas Heijne set the scene at the start by pointing to the contrast between the technology optimism concerning digitisation of years back and the more dystopian discussion (triggered by things like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and cyberwars), and sought the balance in the middle. I think that contrast is largely due to the difference in assumptions underneath the utopian and dystopian views. The techno-optimist perspective, at least in the webscene I frequented in the late 90’s and early 00’s assumed the tools would be in the hands of individuals, who would independently weave the world wide web, smart at the edges and dumb at the center. The dystopian views, including those of early criticaster like Aron Lanier, assumed, and were proven at least partly right, a centralisation into walled gardens where individuals are mere passive users or an object, and no longer a subject with autonomy. This introduces wildly different development paths concerning power distribution, equality and agency.

In the afternoon a session with professor Jeroen van den Hoven, of Delft University, focused on making the ethical challenges more tangible as well as pointed to the beginnings of practical ways to address them. It was the second time I heard him present in a month. A few weeks ago I attended an Ethics and Internet of Things workshop at University of Twente, organised by UNESCO World Commission on the Ethics of Science and Technology (COMEST). There he gave a very worthwile presentation as well.


Van den Hoven “if we don’t design for our values…”

What I call ethics by design, a term I first heard from prof Valerie Frissen, Van den Hoven calls value sensitive design. That term sounds more pragmatic but I feel conveys the point less strongly. This time he also incorporated the geopolitical aspects of data governance, which echoed what Rob van Kranenburg (IoT Council, Next Generation Internet) presented at that workshop last month (and which I really should write down separately). It was good to hear it reinforced for today’s audience of mainly civil servants, as currently there is a certain level of naivety involved in how (mainly local governments) collaborate with commercial partners around data collection and e.g. sensors in the public space.

(Malfunctioning) billboard at Utrecht Central Station a few days ago, with not thought through camera in a public space (to measure engagement with adverts). Civic resistance taped over the camera.

Value sensitive design, said Van den Hoven, should seek to combine the power of technology with the ethical values, into services and products. Instead of treating it as a dilemma with an either/or choice, which is the usual way it is framed: Social networking OR privacy, security OR privacy, surveillance capitalism OR personal autonomy, smart cities OR human messiness and serendipity. In value sensitive design it is about ensuring the individual is still a subject in the philosophical sense, and not merely the object on which data based services feed. By addressing both values and technological benefits as the same design challenge (security AND privacy, etc.), one creates a path for responsible innovation.

The audience saw both responsibilities for individual citizens as well as governments in building that path, and none thought turning one’s back on technology to fictitious simpler times would work, although some were doubtful if there was still room to stem the tide.

Mid June will see the 2018 edition of State of the Net (SOTN) take place in Trieste. SOTN is a long running series of conferences looking at how our use of the internet is changing us and our societies. The topic for this year is ‘Consequences’, one that fits right in my current phase of thinking about and reflection on the course and content of my work, so I’ve marked my calendar accordingly. Access to the conference is free, and the event is always of high quality. So if you have an opportunity to attend, do grab it.

One of the organizers of SOTN is my friend Paolo Valdemarin, whom we originally met at the first BlogTalk conference 15 years ago. I’m currently a member of the conference’s Steering Committee, and was a speaker in the 2012 edition in Trieste, and a panel moderator in the 2015 edition in Milano.

This is the presentation I gave at the Open Belgium 2018 Conference in Louvain-la-Neuve this week, titled ‘The role and value of data inventories, a key step towards mature data governance’. The slides are embedded further below, and as PDF download at grnl.eu/in. It’s a long read (some 3000 words), so I’ll start with a summary.

Summary, TL;DR

The quality of information households in local governments is often lacking.
Things like security, openness and privacy are safeguarded by putting separate fences for each around the organisation, but those safeguards lack having detailed insight into data structures and effective corresponding processes. As archiving, security, openness and privacy in a digitised environment are basically inseparable, doing ‘everything by design’ is the only option. The only effective way is doing everything at the level of the data itself. Fences are inefficient, ineffective, and the GDPR due to its obligations will show how the privacy fence fails, forcing organisations to act. Only doing data governance for privacy is senseless, doing it also for openness, security and archiving at the same time is logical. Having good detailed inventories of your data holdings is a useful instrument to start asking the hard questions, and have meaningful conversations. It additionally allows local government to deploy open or shared data as policy instrument, and releasing the inventory itself will help articulate civic demand for data. We’ve done a range of these inventories with local government.

1: High time for mature data governance in local and regional government

Hight time! (clock in Louvain-la-Neuve)Digitisation changes how we look at things like openness, privacy, security and archiving, as it creates new affordances now that the content and its medium have become decoupled. It creates new forms of usage, and new needs to manage those. As a result of that e.g. archivists find they now need to be involved at the very start of digital information processes, whereas earlier their work would basically start when the boxes of papers were delivered to them.

The reality is that local and regional governments have barely begun to fully embrace and leverage the affordances that digitisation provides them with. It shows in how most of them deal with information security, openness and privacy: by building three fences.

Security is mostly interpreted as keeping other people out, so a fence is put between the organisation and the outside world. Inside it nothing much is changed. Similarly a second fence is put in place for determining openness. What is open can reach the outside world, and the fence is there to do the filtering. Finally privacy is also dealt with by a fence, either around the entire organisation or a specific system, keeping unwanted eyes out. All fences are a barrier between outside and in, and within the organisation usually no further measures are taken. All three fences exist separately from each other, as stand alone fixes for their singular purpose.

The first fence: security
In the Netherlands for local governments a ‘baseline information security’ standard applies, and it determines what information should be regarded as business critical. Something is business critical if its downtime will stop public service delivery, or of its lack of quality has immediate negative consequences for decision making (e.g. decisions on benefits impacting citizens). Uptime and downtime are mostly about IT infrastructure, dependencies and service level agreements, and those fit the fence tactic quite well. Quality in the context of security is about ensuring data is tamper free, doing audits, input checks, and knowing sources. That requires a data-centric approach, and it doesn’t fit the fence-around-the-organisation tactic.


The second fence: openness
Openness of local government information is mostly at request, or at best as a process separate from regular operational routines. Yet the stated end game is that everything should be actively open by design, meaning everything that can be made public will be published the moment it is publishable. We also see that open data is becoming infrastructure in some domains. The implementation of the digitisation of the law on public spaces, requires all involved stakeholders to have the same (access to) information. Many public sector bodies, both local ones and central ones like the cadastral office, have concluded that doing that through open data is the most viable way. For both the desired end game and using open data as infrastructure the fence tactic is however very inefficient.
At the same time the data sovereignty of local governments is under threat. They increasingly collaborate in networks or outsource part of their processes. In most contracts there is no attention paid to data, other than in generic terms in the general procurement conditions. We’ve come across a variety of examples where this results 1) in governments not being able to provide data to citizens, even though by law they should be able to 2) governments not being able to access their own data, only resulting graphs and reports, or 3) the slowest partner in a network determining the speed of disclosure. In short, the fence tactic is also ineffective. A more data-centric approach is needed.

The third fence: personal data protection
Mostly privacy is being dealt with by identifying privacy sensitive material (but not what, where and when), and locking it down by putting up the third fence. The new EU privacy regulations GDPR, which will be enforced from May this year, is seen as a source of uncertainty by local governments. It is also responded to in the accustomed way: reinforcing the fence, by making a ‘better’ list of what personal data is used within the organisation but still not paying much attention to processes, nor the shape and form of the personal data.
However in the case of the GDPR, if it indeed will be really enforced, this will not be enough.

GDPR an opportunity for ‘everything by design’
The GDPR confers rights to the people described by data, like the right to review, to portability, and to be forgotten. It also demands compliance is done ‘by design’, and ‘state of the art’. This can only be done by design if you are able to turn the rights of the GDPR into queries on your data, and have (automated) processes in place to deal with requests. It cannot be done with a ‘better’ fence. In the case of the GDPR, the first data related law that takes the affordances of digitisation as a given, the fence tactic is set to fail spectacularly. This makes the GDPR a great opportunity to move to a data focus not just for privacy by design, but to do openness, archiving and information security (in terms of quality) by design at the same time, as they are converging aspects of the same thing and can no longer be meaningfully separated. Detailed knowledge about your data structures then is needed.

Local governments inadvertently admit fence-tactic is failing
Governments already clearly yet indirectly admit that the fences don’t really work as tactic.
Local governments have been loudly complaining for years about the feared costs of compliance, concerning both openness and privacy. Drilling down into those complaints reveals that the feared costs concern the time and effort involved in e.g. dealing with requests. Because there’s only a fence, and usually no processes or detailed knowledge of the data they hold, every request becomes an expedition for answers. If local governments had detailed insight in the data structures, data content, and systems in use, the cost of compliance would be zero or at least indistinguishable from the rest of operations. Dealing with a request would be nothing more than running a query against their systems.

Complaints about compliance costs are essentially an admission that governments do not have their house in order when it comes to data.
The interviews I did with various stakeholders as part of the evaluation of the PSI Directive confirm this: the biggest obstacle stakeholders perceive to being more open and to realising impact with open data is the low quality of information systems and processes. It blocks fully leveraging the affordances digitisation brings.

Towards mature data governance, by making inventory
Changing tactics, doing away with the three fences, and focusing on having detailed knowledge of their data is needed. Combining what now are separate and disconnected activities (information security, openness, archiving and personal data protection), into ‘everything by design’. Basically it means turning all you know about your data into metadata that becomes part of your data. So that it will be easy to see which parts of a specific data set contain what type of person related data, which data fields are public, which subset is business critical, the records that have third party rights attached, or which records need to be deleted after a specific amount of time. Don’t man the fences where every check is always extra work, but let the data be able to tell exactly what is or is(n’t) possible, allowed, meant or needed. Getting there starts with making an inventory of what data a local or regional government currently holds, and describing the data in detailed operational, legal and technological terms.

Mature digital data governance: all aspects about the data are part of the data, allowing all processes and decisions access to all relevant material in determining what’s possible.

2: Ways local government data inventories are useful

Inventories are a key first step in doing away with the ineffective fences and towards mature data governance. Inventories are also useful as an instrument for several other purposes.

Local is where you are, but not the data pro’s
There’s a clear reason why local governments don’t have their house in order when it comes to data.
Most of our lives are local. The streets we live on, the shopping center we frequent, the schools we attend, the spaces we park in, the quality of life in our neighbourhood, the parks we walk our dogs in, the public transport we use for our commutes. All those acts are local.
Local governments have a wide variety of tasks, reflecting the variety of our acts. They hold a corresponding variety of data, connected to all those different tasks. Yet local governments are not data professionals. Unlike singular-task, data heavy national government bodies, like the Cadastre, the Meteo institute or the department for motor vehicles, local governments usually don’t have the capacity or capability. As a result local governments mostly don’t know their own data, and don’t have established effective processes that build on that data knowledge. Inventories are a first step. Inventories point to where contracts, procurement and collaboration leads to loss of needed data sovereignty. Inventories also allow determining what, from a technology perspective, is a smooth transition path to the actively open by design end-game local governments envision.

Open data as a policy instrument
Where local governments want to use the data they have as a way to enable others to act differently or in support of policy goals, they need to know in detail which data they hold and what can be done with it. Using open data as policy instrument means creating new connections between stakeholders around a policy issue, by putting the data into play. To be able to see which data could be published to engage certain stakeholders it takes knowing what you have, what it contains, and in which shape you have it first.

Better articulated citizen demands for data
Making public a list of what you have is also important here, as it invites new demand for your data. It allows people to be aware of what data exists, and contemplate if they have a use case for it. If a data set hasn’t been published yet, its existence is discoverable, so they can request it. It also enables local government to extend the data they publish based on actual demand, not assumed demand or blindly. This increases the likelihood data will be used, and increases the socio-economic impact.

Emerging data
More and more new data is emerging, from sensor networks in public and private spaces. This way new stakeholders and citizens are becoming agents in the public space, where they meet up with local governments. New relationships, and new choices result. For instance the sensor in my garden measuring temperature and humidity is part of the citizen-initiated Measure your city network, but also an element in the local governments climate change adaptation policies. For local governments as regulators, as guardian of public space, as data collector, and as source of transparency, this is a rebalancing of their position. It again takes knowing what data you own and how it relates to and complements what others collect and own. Only then is a local government able to weave a network with those stakeholders that connects data into valuable agency for all involved. (We’ve built a guidance tool, in Dutch, for the role of local government with regard to sensors in public spaces)

Having detailed data inventories are a way to start having the right conversations for local governments on all these points.

3: Getting to inventories

To create useful and detailed inventories, as I and my colleagues did for half a dozen local governments, some elements are key in my view. We looked at structured data collections only, so disregarded the thousands of individual once-off spreadsheets. They are not irrelevant, but obscure the wood for the trees. Then we scored all those data sets on up to 80(!) different facets, concerning policy domain, internal usage, current availability, technical details, legal aspects, and concerns etc. A key element in doing that is not making any assumptions:

  • don’t assume your list of applications will tell you what data you have. Not all your listed apps will be used, others won’t be on the list, and none of it tells you in detail what data actually is processed in them, just a generic pointer
  • don’t assume information management knows it all, as shadow information processes will exist outside of their view
  • don’t assume people know when you ask them how they do their work, as their description and rationalisation of their acts will not match up with reality,
    let them also show you
  • don’t assume people know the details of the data they work with, sit down with them and look at it together
  • don’t assume what it says on the tin is correct, as you’ll find things that don’t belong there (we’ve e.g. found domestic abuse data in a data set on litter in public spaces)

Doing an inventory well means

  • diving deeply into which applications are actually used,
  • talking to every unit in the organisation about their actual work and seeing it being done,
  • looking closely at data structures and real data content,
  • looking closely at current metadata and its quality
  • separately looking at large projects and programs as they tend to have their own information systems,
  • going through external communications as it may refer to internally held data not listed elsewhere,
  • looking at (procurement and collaboration) contracts to determine what claims other might have on data,
  • and then cross-referencing it all, and bringing it together in one giant list, scored on up to 80 facets.

Another essential part, especially to ensure the resulting inventory will be used as an instrument, is from the start ensuring the involvement and buy-in of the various parts of local government that usually are islands (IT, IM, legal, policy departments, archivists, domain experts, data experts). So that the inventory is something used to ask a variety of detailed questions of.

bring the islands together
Bring the islands together. (photo Dmitry Teslya CC-BY

We’ve followed various paths to do inventories, sometimes on our own as external team, sometimes in close cooperation with a client team, sometimes a guide for a client team while their operational colleagues do the actual work. All three yield very useful results but there’s a balance to strike between consistency and accuracy, the amount of feasible buy-in, and the way the hand-over is planned, so that the inventory becomes an instrument in future data-discussions.

What comes out as raw numbers is itself often counter-intuitive to local government. Some 98% of data typically held by Dutch Provinces can be public, although usually some 20% is made public (15% open data, usually geo-data). At local level the numbers are a bit different, as local governments hold much more person related data (concerning social benefits for instance, chronic care, and the persons register). About 67% of local data could be public, but only some 5% usually is. This means there’s still a huge gap between what can be open, and what is actually open. That gap is basically invisible if a local government deploys the three fences, and as a consequence they run on assumptions and overestimate the amount that needs the heaviest protection. The gap becomes visible from looking in-depth at data on all pertinent aspects by doing an inventory.

(Interested in doing an inventory of the data your organisations holds? Do get in touch.)

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Citizen generated data and sensors in public space

As local governments are responsible for our immediate living environment, they are also the ones most confronted with the rise in citizen generated data, and the increase in the use of sensors in our surroundings.

Where citizens generate data this can be both a clash as well as an addition to professional work with data.
A clash in the sense that citizen measurements may provide a counter argument to government positions. That the handful of sensors a local government might employ show that noise levels are within regulations, does not necessarily mean that people don’t subjectively or objectively experience it quite differently and bring the data to support their arguments.
An addition in the sense that sometimes authorities cannot measure something within accepted professional standards. The Dutch institute for environment and the Dutch meteo-office don’t measure temperatures in cities because there is no way to calibrate them (as too many factors, like heat radiance of buildings are in play). When citizens measure those temperatures and there’s a large enough number of those sensors, then trends and patterns in those measurements are however of interest to those government institutions. The exact individual measurements are still of uncertain quality, but the relative shifts are a new layer of insight. With the decreasing prices of sensors and hardware needed to collect data there will be more topics for which citizen generated data will come into existence. The Measure Your City project in my home town, for which I have an Arduino-based sensor kit in my garden is an example.

There’s a lot of potential for valuable usage of sensor data in our immediate living environment, whether citizen generated or by corporations or local government. It does mean though that local governments need to become much more aware than currently of the (unintended) consequences these projects may have. Local government needs to be extremely clear on their own different roles in this context. They are the rule-setter, the one to safeguard our public spaces, the instigator or user, and any or all of those at the same time. It needs an acute awareness of how to translate that into the way local government enters into contracts, sets limits, collaborates, and provides transparency about what exactly is happening in our shared public spaces. A recent article in the Guardian on the ‘living laboratories’ using sensor data in Dutch cities such as Utrecht, Eindhoven, Enschede and Assen shines a clear light on the type of ethical, legal and technical awareness needed. My company has recently created a design and thinking tool (in Dutch) for local governments to balance these various roles and responsibilities. This ties back to my previous point of local governments not being data professionals, and is a lack of expertise that needs to addressed.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Local open data may need national data coordination

To use local open data effectively it may well mean that specific types of local data need to be available for an entire country or at least a region. Where e.g. real time parking data is useful even if it exists just for one city, for other data the interest lies in being able to make comparisons. Local spending data is much more interesting if you can compare with similar sized cities, or across all local communities. Similarly public transport data gains in usefulness if it also shows the connection with regional or national public transport. For other topics like performance metrics, maintenance, quality of public service this is true as well.

This is why in the Netherlands you see various regional initiatives where local governments join forces to provide data across a wider geographic area. In Fryslan the province, capital city of the province and the regional archive collaborate on providing one data platform, and are inviting other local governments to join. Similarly in Utrecht, North-Holland and Flevoland regional and local authorities have been collaborating in their open data efforts. For certain types of data, e.g. the real estate valuations that are used to decide local taxes, the data is combined into a national platform.

Seen from a developer’s perspective this is often true as well: if I want to build a city app that incorporates many different topics and thus data, local data is fine on its own. If I want to build something that is topic specific, e.g. finding the nearest playground, or the quality of local schools, then being able to scale it to national level may well be needed to make the application a viable proposition, regardless of the fact that the users of such an application are all only interested in one locality.

A different way of this national-local interaction is also visible. Several local governments are providing local subsets of national data sets on their own platforms, so it can be found and adopted more easily by locally interested stakeholders. An example would be for a local government to take the subset of the Dutch national address and buildings database, pertaining to their own jurisdiction only. This large data source is already open and contains addresses, and also the exact shapes of all buildings. This is likely to be very useful on a local level, and by providing a ready-to-use local subset local government saves potential local users the effort of finding their way in the enormous national data source. In that way they make local re-use more likely.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Local outreach is key: open data as a policy instrument

Outreach to potential users of open data is needed, to see open data being adopted. Open data can help people and groups to change the way they do things or make decisions. It is a source of agency. Only where such agency is realized does open data create the promised value.

When local governments realize you can do this on purpose, then open data becomes a policy instrument. By releasing specific data, and by reaching out to specific stakeholders to influence behavior, open data is just as much a policy instrument as is setting regulations or providing subsidies and financing. This also means the effort and cost of open data initiatives is no longer seen as non-crucial additions to the IT budget, but gets to be compared to the costs of other interventions in the policy domain where it is used. Then you e.g. compare the effort of publishing real time parking data with measures like blocking specific roads, setting delivery windows, or placing traffic lights, as they are all part of a purposeful effort to reduce inner city traffic. In these comparisons it becomes clear how cheap open data efforts really are.

To deploy open data as a policy instrument, the starting point is to choose specific policy tasks, and around that reach out to external stakeholders to figure out what these stakeholders need to collaboratively change behaviours and outcomes.
E.g. providing digital data on all the different scenario’s for the redesign of a roundabout or busy crossing allows well informed discussions with people living near that crossing, and allows the comparison of different perspectives. In the end this reduces the number of complaints in the planning phase, increases public support for projects and can cut planning and execution time by months.

These type of interventions result in public savings and better public service outcomes, as well as in increased trust between local stakeholders and government.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Local is where you are, but not the data professionals

The local government is closest to our everyday lives. The street we live on, the way we commute to our work, the schools our children attend, the shopping we do and where we park our vehicles for it, the trash to take away, the quality of life in our immediate surroundings, most if not all is shaped by what local government does. Using open data here means potentially the biggest impact for citizens.

This effect is even stronger where many tasks are delegated to local and regional levels of government and where central government is less seen to be leading on open data. This is the case in for instance Germany. In the past years the states and especially municipalities have been the trail blazers in Germany for open data. This because also important things like taking in refugees is very much a local communal matter. This has resulted in open data apps to help refugees navigate German bureaucracy, learn the local language, and find local volunteers to connect to. Similar initiatives were visible in Serbia, e.g. the Techfugee hackathons. In the Netherlands in recent years key tasks on social welfare, youth care and health care have been delegated to the local level.

There is however a crucial difference between local government and many national public sector bodies. At national level many institutions are data professionals and they are focused on one specific domain or tasks. These are for instance the national statistics body, the cadastral offices, the meteorological institute, the highway authorities, or the business register. Municipalities on the other hand are usually not data professionals. Municipalities have a wide variety of tasks, precisely because they are so close to our everyday lives. This is mirrored in the variety of types of data they hold. However local governments in general have a less well developed overall understanding of their information systems, let alone of which data they hold.

This is also apparent from the work I did to help evaluate the EU PSI Directive: where the maturity of the overall information household is lower, it is much harder to embed or do open data well and in a sustainable manner. The lack of mature data governance is holding open data progress and impact back.