In the past months together with James Burke I worked for the Ministry for the Interior on open public service information (PSI), or open government data. In this posting I describe and link to the results, as well as reflect on the path forward. (See previous postings here and here, and the project’s earlier roots here)

Results we set out to create
We set out to do, and did, 4 things.
1) Get an overview of already available public government data and the people involved
2) Create two examples of how government data can be reused, and be made even more reusable
3) Write a guide on what you need to take into account when opening up your data
4) Propose a scenario for the way forward

Open up your data, it’s the law
First it is important to realize that opening up PSI/Government Data is not merely a gesture of good will by branches of government. By law all information and data relating to policies is public, unless there are urgent and severe reasons to not make it public (legal, privacy, national security come to mind). So ‘public, unless’ is the law, as per the European Directive on PSI, which has been implemented in the corresponding Dutch law, Wet Openbaarheid Bestuur (WOB), as described in this English translation. Open data helps in increasing the transparancy of government, as well as enables new and innovative applications that would not otherwise be possible (thus increasing the value created by collecting the data in the first place)
In practice this does not yet translate widely into pro-actively making information and data available in open standards (also law since April 2008) that mean they can actually be easily used by citizens and private organizations. There are exceptions of course, but in general you have to ask first and hope you get your answer in a usable format.

Open up your data and information at every level you can

Strengthening the network of exceptions to change culture
The people that are currently creating the exceptions (i.e. are pro-actively enabling open government data) are at this moment still largely isolated. Bringing them together, enabling the sharing of experiences is the way forward we proposed. So that the exceptions become more visible, and thus ‘normal’, so that the civil servants involved are better equipped with arguments and examples to move forward within their own environment, and so that it can be shown they are meeting a real demand of citizens. In our interviews service to citizens turned out to be a core value that can be leveraged towards a pro-actively open government when it comes to information and data.

So strenghtening the network and creating the conditions for forming a community of practice around those interested in opening up government data (civil servants, citizens, organizations alike) is an important aspect of bringing practice in line with the law, and making sure it becomes integrated in the cultural fabric of our government organisations.
As steps towards that we are using the results of our project to both crowd source our efforts, as well as use them as catalysts for network and community building.

Strengthening international ties: presenting our project at EUPS20 at the EU in Brussels, and Open Knowledge Foundation Communia Workshop in London

Putting the results ‘out there’
All the results of our project have landed in a Workspace in the Overheid20 webplatform. This platform can be used by both civil servants and others to explore the possibilities of social media / web.20, while staying within the guidelines that are in place for designing and securing government websites. It allows for group forming, both public and closed, and where other people can be invited into.
We also published most of our results in other places, to make it easier to crowdsource further development, and make results easier to link to.

The data sources we identified are now part of the wiki Open Data Overheid where Lex Slaghuis and others were already independently bringing together sources and information.

The two examples of reusing government data we created each have their own website, which includes an explanation of both the work as well as the reasoning behind it.

The guide we wrote for civil servants involved with open government is based on the interviews we had during the project, and is now open for review and feedback at Vrije Data (free data). The first round of feedback will be written into the guide on June 20th, but more feedback and additions are welcome after that date as well. The guide adresses the definition of open and reusable data, goes into technological, organizational and legal aspects, as well as explaining the importance of open data.

Examples of reuse
We created two examples of reusing gov data. One is the ‘school finder‘ that allows searching more intuitively for schools based on your zip code. The other is a ‘smog alarm‘ that shows you smog predictions in your area, as well as sends alerts via Twitter to you if predicted values pass a threshold you indicated. We also made sure that the two examples output data in ways that make it more reusable, using microformats, giving data unique URLs that can be referred to and feeding sensor data into Pachube, the international source for worldwide open sensor data for instance.

Smog Alarm and School Finder screenshots.

Activities to enable the network
Several activities are under way that serve as catalysts to bring the network together. Last Saturday saw ‘Hack the Government‘ (a follow up of last year’s GovCamp we organized) where civil servants and coders spent a day discussing issues around open data, as well as create on the spot several applications reusing government data. Two government ministries are providing funding to realize good ideas around reusing government data. The Ministry for the Interior is organizing a competition ‘Dat zou handig zijn!‘ (‘That would be great to have’), which is similar to the UK initiative Show us a Better Way. The Ministry for Education is also making money available for ideas around the specific reuse of the mass of educational data they are making available already.

At the end of this month a BarCamp is taking place around the (strict) web styling guidelines in place for government websites and how social media /web 2.0 functionality can be used and implemented in accordance with these guidelines (or how the guidelines should change). Meanwhile discussion is going on in lots of places, that we are aware of. In different ministries, but also provincial governments, as well as in community websites like Ambtenaar 2.0 (‘civil servants 2.0’). Hopefully the Ministry for the Interior can continue to play a role in stimulating the network around Open Data, both with activities as well as brokering contacts and incentives. Also we’ll keep trying to learn from initiatives abroad, as well as share our experiences (especially since the culture of our public sphere is very different from the one in e.g. the UK) in moving forward with open PSI and data. To that extent I also proposed a session at the Reboot conference, to bring together European experiences in this field.

Coders last Saturday discussing applications for government data

Last weekend saw a BarCamp in Amsterdam around government and the impact of web2.0. GovCamp NL was inspired by the GovCamp in London last year. Thanks to James Burke and Peter Robinett about 25 people, with about a third government workers, found themselves in the former offices of de Volkskrant.

Chris and Peter working the paper wiki

I arrived a bit late, so I had to miss out on the first session where Arjen Kamphuis talked about his past work to get government committed to open standards, open source, and open data. Shame I missed that, but good to see him again. Sessions I did attend talked about current or past projects on how to use the internet as a new/additional public sphere (like, how to increase participation (like with, or having a more direct say in how your taxes are spend), and how to use internet as additional channel for public hearings on policies.

James kicking of discussion with his ‘hacked’ tax forms

GovCamp vs PolitCamp
In comparison PolitCamp in Graz the week before was more about building awareness, amongst politicians and by extension government, that something had changed at all. GovCamp Amsterdam was more about doing tangible projects. Differences in penetration of ADSL between the highly urbanized Netherlands and relatively sparsely populated Austria probably help to explain this. A common thing however was the seemingly widespread notion that ‘those politicians’ and ‘the government’ were somehow doing it all ‘wrong’ and are ‘not getting it’, without acknowledging the fact that ‘the government’ does not exist, and all those structures are filled with people who are trying to make sense of the world just as much as I am and you are. First, if you know better, you are also the one to teach better. Second, no system or structure will make itself irrelevant over night. We will have to be there to help make the transition. Either by building alternate structures, or by helping the existing ones change. I think I’m doing the former in my personal life, and the latter with my clients. An activist stance is needed here more than a lamenting/knowing-it-better pose. That is why I was pleased to see politicians in Graz making an effort to attend, and was as pleased to see civil servants in Amsterdam actively experimenting and exploring how to change their work, while keeping focussed on the goals of their work.

Lunch conversations on the roofterrace

The Format
For a lot of participants the BarCamp format was new. It was generally received as creative and informal, but also with some apprehension as to the lack of ‘steering’. If however at a BarCamp you think the discussion is not addressing the real issues, start your own discussion and session right then and there, instead of asking for more steering. The fact that this BarCamp took place, that it brought web-developers and civil servants together the way it did, is already proof that it is not the lack of steering that makes things impossible. No steering was involved after all to bring the event about. It is important to remember the basic ‘rules’ of open space engagement here: whoever is there are the right people, whatever is addressed is the right topic, it starts and ends when it does, and if you feel you can’t contribute to or learn from a conversation you’re in, start or join a different conversation immediately.
I think James and Peter made sure a pleasant event took place. The catering was fine, thanks to the funding by XS4All, and the sunny roof terrace was a pleasant element in the mix. The wifi was dependable too. So thanks!

Open Data Revisited
Opening up government data was a topic at GovCamp as it was in Graz last week. It came up in some of the sessions, it was a talking point during lunch. My major take-away for GovCamp therefore was that a small group found itself around the task of making inventory of what datasets are actually held within Dutch government agencies. With that inventory list in hand a concerted effort can be made to open them up one by one with technologies like RDF, SPRQL and OWL. I think this is an important thing to do, and am curious how it will develop and what I can contribute.

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