Last Saturday saw the 2nd installment of GovCamp, this time titled ‘Hack the Government’, in Amsterdam. A full day long both civil servants and coders discussed different issues around opening up government data. At the same time the coders that were present created applications right there and then, based on open government data. The day was put together by my friend James Burke and Lex Slaghuis, and with loads of much appreciated help by Vincent Lindeboom and Edial Dekker. I started the day with a short introduction sketching the general landscape around open gov data, based on our experiences in the project described in the previous posting, and facilitated the audience in building the program BarCamp-style on an impromptu-wiki-wall.

Citizens and coders need to take more of a constructive activist stance
Like I remarked last year, it is one thing to complain about government doing things ‘wrong’ and ‘not getting it’, and treating government as one organizational body, but quite another to actually formulate what you want and what you are prepared to do yourself to get there. This is regardless of the fact that there are civil servants who don’t ‘get it’ at all, and are making mistakes, because when you don’t reach out to help them ‘get it’ they will never know they’re not living up to your expectations in the first place. This is regardless of the fact that we often experience stonewalling when asking for more government transparency, because if we don’t do whatever already is possible within our own sphere of influence we will never get to the point where the still dominant culture of default opaqueness is changed. Just saying ‘yes, but it’s the law’ is not enough and will not work change, you have to be prepared to act based on it. As large scale political pressure to make this a priority is lacking (unlike e.g. the US currently, or the UK), we need to build pressure ourselves.

Civil Servants need to reach out
At the same time it is key that civil servants who are serious about open gov data let the ‘outside’ know what they need to move things forward, what we can do to help. Luckily, even in the midst of a lot of confusion over language and what is and what is not a governmental task, last Saturday was a platform for civil servants and coders to find a way to collectively move forward.
I was very pleased to see that a significant group of government employees decided to participate. Government ministries (e.g. Interior, Education, General Affairs) were represented, as well municipalities (e.g. Vught, Utrecht, Den Haag), and different parts of governmental bodies dealing with transparency, ICT or other topics (e.g. ICTU).

Andre Herbrink of Min of Education on open data (left) and Twitter wall back channel (right)

One of the presentations given, on (no longer available)
Alper’s presentation on scraping. (no longer available)

Not just talk, also walk
We not only talked about open data and discussed existing efforts and examples, we walked the talk as well. After Alper giving a short introduction on how to scrape data when the source is not directly available, or there is no API, coders got to work on different ideas and apps that reuse open (or in some cases not so open yet) government data.

Some of the things that people worked on:

An API for the RDW website and database available from (‘our data’), allowing access to information about cars based on their license plates. Created by Christoph Kempen en Manfred Zielinski. Update: RDW, the government agency involved, is currently actively blocking the API. Proving how slow going this process of transparancy is.

An Android application taking the information about cars available at the RDW, based on the user entering a license plate number. This info is available through a website, but with this app also more directly and quickly on your mobile phone. Built by Ronald v.d. Lingen.

Polirazzi, a website that takes a politician’s name and then gives you an overview of any newspaper articles mentioning that politician. Built by Breyten Ernsting, based on an API available at (‘I govern’) to get the list of current members of parliament and party affiliation.

Discussing meaningful data visualization (l), Breyten and Ronald coding (r)

A way for investigative journalists to detect changes in PDF files published by government. Sometimes small but crucial pieces of info get augmented, changed or edited in already public documents without it being noticed and under the same url and document title. A small group worked on a way of versioning these documents.
An idea to add RIVM environmental data to an iPhone app, and combine it with existing rain radar apps. Reminiscent of the ‘smog alarm’ website we built as an example earlier.

A open version of the database of the Chamber of Commerce ‘who earn more money exploiting their database with your data than the average successful Russian spammer outfit’, called OpenKvK. With a demo of life scraping and searching at the end of the afternoon. It also allows automatic creation of a ZIP code database. This is an extremely important dataset (for all kinds of location aware services), that is currently owned by TNT to everybody’s chagrin and not in public hands (as an undesirable result of privatizing the mail). Watch for when it’s ready (search form not active yet).

Do you know exactly when garbage gets collected in your street? And old paper? Garden refuse? Pascal van Hecke, Hanno Lans and Menno Sman worked on an idea to create an easy site giving you all the info you need based on your zip code and house number. Most intriguing part of their idea was to me their suggestion to crowdsource the needed data scraping: have a few people in each municipality scrape the data relevant and useful to them, and in that way build up national coverage and completeness.

During a session (l), lunch time conversations (r)

I may have missed some other efforts but, am happy to add more if you point out my omissions. I do have one regret though, and that is noone worked with the data of the Ministry of Education. They were present and could have helped explain jargon language etc being used in their sometimes hard to understand API, also they were really eager to see people work with their data, and actively asking for feedback and input.
(More pics in my Flickr stream)

A short video impression (in Dutch) by Elmine Wijnia: (no longer available)

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