This week it was 15 years ago that I became involved in open government data. In this post I look back on how my open data work evolved, and if it brought any lasting results.
I was at a BarCamp in Graz on political communication the last days of May 2008 and ended up in a conversation with Keith Andrews in a session about his wish for more government held data to use for his data visualisation research. I continued that conversation a week later with others at NL GovCamp on 7 June 2008 in Amsterdam, an event that I helped organise with James Burke and Peter Robinnet. There, on the rotting carpets of the derelict office building that had been the Volkskrant offices until 2007, several of us discussed how to bring about open data in the Netherlands:
My major take-away … was that a small group found itself around the task of making inventory of what datasets are actually held within Dutch government agencies. … I think this is an important thing to do, and am curious how it will develop and what I can contribute.
Me, 10 June 2008
Fifteen years on, what came of that ‘important thing to do’ and seeing ‘what I can contribute’?
At first it was mostly talk, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if ..’, but importantly part of that talk was with the Ministry responsible for government transparency who were present at NL GovCamp. Initially we weren’t allowed to meet at the Ministry itself, inviting ‘hackers’ in was seen as too sensitive, and over the course of 6 months several conversations with civil servants took place in a pub in Utrecht, before being formally invited to come talk. That however did result in a first assignment from January 2009, which I did with James and with Alper (who also had participated in NL GovCamp).
With some tangible results in hand from that project, I hosted a conversation at Reboot 11 in 2009 in Copenhagen about open data, leading to an extension of my European network on the topic. There I also encountered the Danish IT/open government team. Cathrine of that team invited me to host a panel at an event early 2010 where also the responsible official at the European Commission for open data was presenting. He invited me to Luxembourg to meet the PSI Group of national representatives in June 2010, and it landed me an invitation as a guest blogger that same month for an open data event hosted by the Spanish government and the ePSIplatform team, a European website on re-using government information.
There I also met Marc, a Dutch lawyer in open government. Having met various European data portal teams in Madrid, I then did some research for the Dutch government on the governance and costs of a Dutch open data portal in the summer of 2010, through which I met Paul who took on a role in further shaping the Dutch portal. Stimulated by the Commission with Marc I submitted a proposal to run the ePSIplatform, a public tender we won. The launching workshop of our work on the ePSIplatform in January 2011 in Berlin is where I met Frank. In the fall of 2011 I attended the Warsaw open government data camp, where Marc, Frank, Paul and I all had roles. I also met Oleg from the World Bank there. In November 2011 Frank, Paul, Marc and I founded The Green Land, and I have worked on over 40 open data projects since then under that label. Early 2012 I was invited to the World Bank in the US to provide some training, and later that year worked in Moldova for them. From 2014 I worked in Kazachstan, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Malaysia for the World Bank until 2019, before the pandemic ended it for now.
What stands out to me in this history of a decade and a half is:
- How crucial chance encounters were/are and how those occurred around small tangible things to do. From those encounters the bigger things grew. Those chance encounters could happen because I helped organise small events, went to events by others, and even if they were nominally about something else, had conversations there about open data with likeminded people. Being in it for real, spending effort to strengthen the community of practitioners around this topic created track record quickly. This is something I recently mentioned when speaking about my work to students as well: making time for side interests is important, I’ve come to trust it as a source of new activities.
- The small practical steps I took, a first exploratory project, creating a small collection of open data examples out of my own interest, writing the first version of an open data handbook with four others during a weekend in Berlin served as material for those conversations and were the scaffolding for bigger things.
- I was at the right time, not too early, not late. There already was a certain general conversation on open data going on. In 2003 the EC had legislated for government data re-use, which had entered into force in May 2008, just 3 weeks before I picked the topic up. Thus, there was an implemented legal basis for open data in place in the EU, which however hadn’t been used by anyone as new instrument yet. By late 2008 Barack Obama was elected to the US presidency on a platform that included government transparency, which on the day after his inauguration in January 2009 resulted in a Memorandum to kick-start open government plans across the public sector. This meant there was global attention to the topic. So the circumstances were right, there was general momentum, just not very many people yet trying to do something practical.
- Open data took several years to really materialise as professional activity for me. During those years most time was spent on explaining the topic, weaving the network of people involved across Europe and beyond. I have so many open data slide decks from 2009 and 2010 in my archive. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, I was active in the field but my main professional activities were still elsewhere. In 2009 after my first open data project I wondered out loud if this was a topic I could and wanted to continue in professionally. From early 2011 most of my income came from open data, while the need for building out the network of people involved was still strong. Later, from 2014 or so open data became more local, more regular, shifted to being part of data governance, and now data ethics. The pan-European network evaporated. Nevertheless helping improve European open data legislation has been a crucial element until now, to keep providing a fundament beneath the work.
From those 15 years, what stands out as meaningful results? What did it bring?
This is a hard and easy question at the same time. Hard because ‘meaningful’ can have many definitions. If we take achieving permanent or even institutionalised results as yard stick, two things stand-out. One at the beginning and one at the end of the 15 years.
- My 2010 report for the Ministry for the Interior on the governance and financing of a national open data portal and facilitating a public consultation on what it would need to do, helped launch the Dutch open government data portal data.overheid.nl in 2011. A dozen years on, it is a key building block of the Dutch government’s public data infrastructure, and on the verge of taking on a bigger role with the implementation of the European data strategy.
- At the other end of the timeline is the publication of the EU Implementing Regulation on High Value Data last December, for which I did preparatory research (PDF report), and which compels the entire public sector in Europe to publish a growing list of datasets through APIs for free re-use. Things I wrote about earth observation, environmental and meteorological data are in the law’s Annexes which every public body must comply with by next spring. What’s in that law about geographic data, company data and meteorological data ends more than three decades worth of discussion and court proceedings w.r.t. access to such data.
Talking about meaningful results is also an easy question, especially when not looking for institutional change:
- Practically, it means my and my now 10 colleagues have an income, which is meaningful within the scope of our personal everyday lives. The director of a company I worked at 25 years ago once said to me when I remarked on the low profits of the company that year ‘well, over 40 families had an income meanwhile, so that’s something.’ I never forgot it. That’s certainly something.
- There’s the NGO Open State Foundation that directly emerged from the event James, Peter and I organised in 2008. The next event in 2009 was named ‘Hack the Government’ and organised by James and several others who had attended in 2008. It was registered as a non-profit and from 2011 became the Open State Foundation, now a team of eight people still doing impactful work on making Dutch government more transparant. I’ve been the chair of their board for the last 5 years, which is a privilege.
- Yet the most meaningful results concern people, changes they’ve made, and the shift in attitude they bring to public sector organisations. When you see a light go on in the eyes of someone during a presentation or conversation. Mostly you never learn what happens next. Sometimes you do. Handing out a few free beers (‘Data Drinks’) in Copenhagen making someone say ‘you’re doing more for Danish open data in a month by bringing everyone together than we did in the past years’. An Eastern European national expert seconded to the EC on open data telling me he ultimately came to this job because as a student he heard me speak once at his university and decided he wanted to be involved in the topic. An Irish civil servant who asked me in 2012 about examples I presented of collaboratively making public services with citizens, and at the end of 2019 messaged me it had led to the crowd sourced mapping of Lesotho in Open Street Map over five years to assist the Lesotho Land Registry and Planning Authority in getting good quality maps (embed of paywalled paper on LinkedIn). Someone picking up the phone in support, because I similarly picked up the phone 9 years earlier. None of that is directly a result of my work, it is fully the result of the work of those people themselves. Nothing is ever just one person, it’s always a network. One’s influence is in sustaining and sharing with that network. I happened to be there at some point, in a conversation, in a chance encounter, from which someone took some inspiration. Just as I took some inspiration from a chance encounter in 2008 myself. To me it’s the very best kind of impact when it comes to achieving change.
I’ve plotted the things mentioned above in this image for the most part. As part of trying to map the evolution of my work, inspired by another type of chance encounter with a mind map on the wall of museum.