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.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

On the fragmentation of community, and the withdrawal into sectors

When open data was in the phase where it was mostly about awareness raising, it was also very much an internationally connected network of people involved. They would meet up regularly at various pan-European events, and frequently exchange experiences. It seems to me that has changed, and that broad network has fragmented. I realize this is caused by the need to focus on actual projects and implementation work, and also by open data becoming more common place. That open data has become a more routine part of various other work and initiatives means also open data is becoming a point of discussion in events not centered on open data. It is a sign of increasing maturity, but we’re also losing something.

The fragmentation of the European network of people interested in open data, means we all are generally less aware of what is happening elsewhere, the solutions others find in overcoming organizational barriers to openness, the ways other groups find valuable ways to use open data etc. It can also mean stakeholders don’t realize opportunities or solutions are within their reach, and have already been done elsewhere. This then means a reduction in the agency of those stakeholders, while the stated intent of opening data is to increase that very same agency.

There are many active open data efforts in many countries, and it is now usually a more integral part of how various sectors organise themselves. In the geo sector as well as e.g. in journalism awareness of data is alive and well. Next month e.g. there’s the International Journalism Festival, and at least one panel there focuses on data (Titled “conversations with data”). Within data journalism there is currently more focus on investigative work, and that usually means it’s not focused on openly available data as much. In other sectors we see similar things. In academic research circles that depend on shared infrastructure (think the LHC at CERN in Geneva, or radio telescopes), data sharing is common too. In other research circles data awareness may be less developed yet. Archiving is another sector where attention for data has become commonplace. However all those efforts are less connected to general open data efforts, and less part of a shared understanding or narrative. This reduces the potential re-use of eachother’s insights and experiences and again diminishes the speed of development and overall impact.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

The opportunity the GDPR presents

Many European government entities I encounter worry about the GDPR, the personal data protection rules that will start being enforced from next May. They see it as hugely important but also an uncertain factor. Part of that uncertainty is in not really knowing how to implement it well. Also the relationship with things like open data are unclear to most.

Two elements I stressed in the panel discussion: 
First, open data builds on public data, and everything that is restricted because of the GDPR is not public by definition. So in that sense everything you do concerning open data is disconnected from the GDPR. However as I mentioned at the end of the first part of my notes, there is an issue with the privacy implications that may arise from downstream usage and recombination of open data sets. The current legal framework does not solve it, it assumes that the GDPR precedes the PSI Directive, so that only data where the GDPR does not apply will be subject to the PSI Directive. Yet at the same time the GDPR does say things about future usage and effects concerning data that for instance has been released under the PSI Directive, and that currently in turn might invalidate the original conclusion the PSI Directive applies. In short: the GDPR contains non-linear feedback loops, but the sequencing of GDPR and PSI Directive assumes a steady linear path without feedback loops.

Second, I however see the GDPR as a tremendous opportunity for open data to become much more deeply embedded in information processes and systems design inside government. 
The GDPR calls for data protection by design ,as well as for keeping up with the state of the art while doing that. This means personal data protection can no longer be a mere fence around your data, but needs to be designed into your data structures. This means at every stage of your work precisely knowing where in your data structures what types of data reside. It means being able to within a single data set distinguish between fields that need protection and fields that don’t, or only do in specific instances. Any usage restrictions that may apply on the basis of the GDPR basically has to be captured into metadata for the data itself. To me it makes no sense to just do this for the GDPR, for person related data only. It however makes a lot of sense to me to do this for

  • openness (what is public, when under which conditions),
  • data security (in the sense of the needed guaranteed availability and quality of data, ensuring uptime and making tampering impossible)
  • data protection (privacy, third party rights, economic issues and other openness exemptions)
  • digital archiving (archiving terms, mandatory destruction of data)

“Everything by design” in short, not just privacy (or openness) by design. The implementation of the GDPR is an opportunity to embed it all in the digital transformation of government and get to much more mature data governance.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

On Open Data as infrastructure, and how open data is going under the hood

Several countries such as UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland are regarding openness of key government data sets as infrastructure. There they’ve come to see that these core data sets also play a role in enabling the re-use of other data sets, as they provide a backbone or way to combine them.
Also open data in various places has become a more common part of how government operates or how people use data. This means it moves into more general and mainstream topics such as general IT or data management. As a result open data is becoming less visible as a separate topic.

In the Netherlands for instance the digitization of all processes concerning activities and permits etc in public spaces is largely being done through open data. The law demands a level playing field in terms of the same information being available to all stakeholders easily. Government entities are now building ‘information houses’ to cater for that, and open data is the primary way they see for achieving that. Similarly in the Netherlands there are 5 software vendors for information systems for city councils (decisions, meeting reports, voting records etc). Those 5 now have open data adapters in their software, meaning they provide fully accessible API’s. Because of it individual councils no longer really need to consider open data, their software systems will do it for them. Last year only a handful municipalities had their council docs as open data as proof of concept, as of last month 100 opened up, and in the coming time the remaining 300 will do so as well. This project is driven by CSO Open State Foundation, the national association of municipalities in collaboration with the 5 vendors, and no longer an individual thing for a single municipality. As all the provinces use the same software it likely will soon be true for them as well.

Where open data is nicely embedded in the regular processes of government structures, and that is as it should be, the open data efforts and results are becoming less and less visible, up to the point where you’ll only notice its absence, like with any other infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and phones.

Yet that visibility, of both good practice and of impact, is still very much needed to drive open data forward to include all European government entities equally and all government data equally. We are nowhere near that point yet, but paradoxically the things that already have been achieved may be making it harder to keep up the momentum to do more.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

On EU and Global Trends

The team behind the European data portal publish yearly reports (2017 PDF) on how EU countries are doing. They see the differences between previous front runners and later starters becoming smaller. That is a good thing, as it means there is an emerging general European level of maturity in open data.

At the same time I feel a lot of momentum has been lost as well. The UK for instance is much less active under the current government than e.g. 7 years ago. Similarly in the Netherlands I hear ministries who were very active previously ask for what the next big thing is, where to go next, whether open data or something else. This sounds like (relatively) early adopters are moving on, and if they do not leave sustainable structures behind, open data will stall.

Globally we see more populistic governments tending to less transparency. Such as in the US, where government data has been removed from websites.
My colleague Paul was in the Czech Republic last week and came back with an example of a regressive step: the Czech government has reinstated charges for meteorological data. There is no rational argument for charging for access to digital government data, especially not for meteo. While current legally mandated charges are historically understandable, reinstating charges that were previously abolished is not.

The mentioned latest EU report on open data maturity advices several things to drive open data forward:

  • Embed open data into normal data management, and into digital transformation of the public sector. This is certainly a key thing.
  • Do more impact studies to show evidence. I think that particularly micro-economic impact studies are very important, such as we are currently doing for the ESA, but they are time consuming and intensive, and I encounter little will in government bodies to really do them. At a political level policy impact assessment isn’t popular either.
  • Intensify steady external stakeholder engagement. Extremely important I think, as those external stakeholders are the ones creating the impact and realising the value of open data. But going outside and listening to the needs of stakeholders has proven to be scary for most government bodies, even if they know how to go about it.
  • Start looking at privately held data in domains that are close to the public interest. Think of fields like energy transition, health care, etc. This to me is certainly a next step, not just in terms of companies realising the need for action, but also in terms of governments realising there is a legitimate public interest in getting access to cereain privately held data. There is also an increasingly important role for citizen generated data that ties into this.

All in all I think most governments now have experienced it is not enough to just publish data. You have to go out there and provoke re-use, ensure that everyone knows what you have to offer. That is real work and not all government entities are willing or able to make that effort.

The current EU regulation on the usage of open data, the PSI Directive is under review (I’ve done some of the evaluation work for it for the Netherlands in December and January). I hope the rules won’t change much, other than maybe ensuring better alignment with the GDPR, and solving the issues that result from downstream usage of open data. It has only been 2 years since the last PSI Directive changes were implemented, and in most countries the effect of that isn’t fully visible yet.

This week is Open Data Week in Serbia. It kicked off on Tuesday with a conference session, and an unconference. I was invited to join a panel on current trends and developments. The panel was balanced to provide a nicely layered perspective. Where my role was to talk about global and European developments, my UNDP colleague Lejla Sadiku provided insight into developments in the Balkans and the wider eastern European region. The perspective on Serbia itself was provided by Мihailo Jovanovic who is the director of the Serbian government office for IT en e-government, and Djordje Krivokapic who represented Serbian civil society.

The panel, ltr, Djordje, me, Lejla (speaking), Mihailo, and Slobodan (moderator). Photo: Aca Ivic

We did two rounds of comments from the panel, and then discussion with the other participants in the room. The first round focused on general developments and trends, the second round focused on how that plays out for local government and cities / communities.

Spread out over the coming 8 postings are the notes I used for my statements in the panel. I am posting them as separate blog postings, as otherwise the postings get quite long. The first 4 are observations about the general open data developments and trends I see. The second 4 are observations about open data developments in local settings.

General observations:

  1. EU and Global Trends
  2. Open data as infrastructure, going under the hood
  3. The GDPR is an opportunity
  4. Fragmented community, splitting into sectors

Local government level observations:

  1. Local is where you are, but not the data professionals
  2. Well considered outreach is key
  3. Local data may need national coordination
  4. Citizen generated data, and sensors in public space

I will also post some thoughts about the unconference session where we discussed more deeply the role of open data in local government settings.

I participated in the Serbian open data week the past days. Taking last Saturday’s international open data day as a starting point, the Serbian open data week is organized by both the Serbian government office for IT and e-government and the UNDP in Serbia, in collaboration with civil society groups such as the coworking spaces of Startit Centar.

On Tuesday there was a formal conference with many government representatives, in which I joined a panel to discuss international trends in open data on both the general and the local level. Also there local government and civil society open data efforts presented themselves. Later that same day there was an unconference in the Belgrade Startit Centar in which I had the opportunity to talk with both civil society as well as local government representatives about our work in the Netherlands deploying open data as a tool to achieve specific local policy outcomes. The rest of the week long program consists of both internal sessions with government bodies to help them move forward with open data, and awareness raising sessions, data clinics and training in coworking spaces across cities in Serbia.

I will publish my notes from both sessions I participated in, divided over a series of blog postings here.

Otvoreni Podaci – Otvorene Mogucnosti / Open data – open opportunities

It was good to be back in Serbia, three years after doing a national open data readiness assessment, and two years after last working with the national government open data working group building action plans for specific institutions. In the years since then momentum hasn’t dried up, and I met many people again who have been involved since my earlier visits, as well as many new faces from new involved institutions. (As an indicator, 2 years ago the open data working group consisted of about 8 institutions, but now is comprised of some 70 organisations from all over Serbia) This week my translator was the same lady who accompanied me 3 years ago. She said that back then she didn’t believe anything would change, but “look at us now”, and that in every government document she is asked to translate open data is mentioned. Indeed, look at Serbia now. As anyplace else, there is still much to do, but also much has been gained already.

UNDP Serbia has formed a pool of open data consultants to assist the Serbian government in moving ahead with open data, and I’m happy to be involved until July 2019. In the coming weeks I will be doing an ex-ante exploration of the impact open data can have in Serbia, together with my Serbian colleague Vid Stimac. This week we had a planning session, in Dutch surprisingly as he went to university here.

I appreciate the work of science fiction author Charles Stross a lot (his blog is here). At the 34th Chaos Communication Conference (which took place in December in Leipzig, Germany) he gave an interesting presentation. He isn’t much of a presenter, reading from his notes, so go read the transcript that he posted (the video is online as well). With some deserved criticism of the singularity, and corporations as 19th century slow AI, as context blind single purpose algorithms.

And on how exploring the (near) future as SF is becoming more and more difficult:

My recipe for fiction set ten years in the future used to be 90% already-here, 9% not-here-yet but predictable, and 1% who-ordered-that. But unfortunately the ratios have changed. I think we’re now down to maybe 80% already-here—climate change takes a huge toll on infrastructure—then 15% not-here-yet but predictable, and a whopping 5% of utterly unpredictable deep craziness.

On 12 March the 2018 edition of the Open Belgium Conference takes place in Louvain-la-Neuve. With my company, next to sponsoring the event as a partner, we submitted several proposals in the open call for speakers. The program and speakers have now been announced. I’m pleased that we’ve been invited to give two presentations.

My colleagues Frank and Jochem will talk about a project we’re doing with a regional government and local governments, where together with civil servants from the local governments we talked to farmers, citizens, entrepreneurs and businesses and simply asked them: ‘what do you do’ and ‘how can we help (with our data)’? The process and results and the way this is a novel experience for both civil service and external stakeholders are story worth sharing.

I will be presenting at the very end of the day, talking about the need for and use of creating systematic and detailed inventories of data assets in a government entity. Increasingly open data, personal data protection, information security, and data sovereignty are overlapping topics and efforts, where most government organisations will still treat them as islands. My and my company’s experience from creating data inventories for 6 different Dutch government bodies shows how data inventories can support data governance, embracing privacy, security and openness, all by design.

I’m looking forward to the conference, and meeting up with both familiar faces, and new ones, as well as get a better overview of all that is happening in Belgium concerning open knowledge. If possible I’d like to find some new contacts for collaboration in Belgium, by transplanting some of our methods and processes.

Part of my 2018 plans is to do a bit more in Belgium with my company The Green Land. We’re looking for partners to work with locally. To gain a bit more visibility we are a sponsoring partner for the upcoming Open Belgium Conference, that takes place on March 12th in Louvain-la-Neuve. Get your tickets now and see you in Belgium this spring!

Last week saw an end of an era. The program manager for open data of the Flemish government retired. While parts of the work will go on, no direct successor will be named to the role. At the annual conference of Information Flanders (#tiv2017), Noël van Herreweghe after 6 years of being the driving force behind Flanders’ open data team, said his goodbye during the opening plenary. His main and clearly heard message was that much is still to be done, and we’ve barely started on the path towards open by design. I hope the Flemish government and civil service will take this to heart. Now is not the time to reduce efforts, as the transition is only just in motion.


Noël telling us and the Flemish government to stay the course (Tweet and photo by @toon, Toon Vanagt)

In the past 6 years Flanders has taken several steps that I think the Netherlands should follow. Based on the underlying legal framework, the Flemish government has taken pre-emptive decisions for all government entities within their scope about in what ways data can and should be published. It is no longer up to the individual agencies, if you decide to publish you must follow the established principles. In the Netherlands that is all still voluntary, and the principles are put forward as guidelines, not as must-follow rules. Similarly the Flemish government has adopted a URI strategy, using both machine and human readable URI conventions, which in the Netherlands is lacking.

It’s been a pleasure to work with Noël and his team in these past 6 years. Whether it was in helping decide on which local and regional open data projects to fund from the Flemish government, translating research on the economic impact of open data to the Flemish and Belgian context, providing scenario’s to the Flemish Chancellary for opening up Flemish consolidated laws and regulations as open data, or providing open data training together with Noel to a joint session of the Dutch and Belgian/Flemish supreme audit authorities.

For each of those 6 years my colleague Paul, representing the Dutch government open data team, and I participated in the Flemish open government days, and its successor the annual Information Flanders Meet-up. It gave us the opportunity to keep comparing Dutch and Flemish open data efforts, to learn from each other as well as laugh about the differences. A fixed feature on the agenda was eating a Portuguese fish soup the evening before the event in Brussels with Noël and his colleagues.

Portuguese Fish Soup Open data dag Vlaanderen
A ‘small bowl’ of fish soup, 2012 and 2015 editions

As Noël said, the work isn’t remotely done, and judging from the conversations we had with Noël last week, he isn’t likely to stop being active either. So I trust we will find ways of working together again in a different setting in the near future.