Recently I have been named the new chairman of the board of the Open State Foundation. This is a new role I am tremendously looking forward to take up. The Open State Foundation is the leading Dutch NGO concerning government transparency, and over the past years they’ve both persistently and in a very principled way pursued open data and government transparency, as well as constructively worked with government bodies to help them do better. Stef van Grieken, the chairman stepping down, has led the Open State Foundation board since it came into existence. The Open State Foundation is the merger of two earlier NGO’s, The New Voting (Het Nieuwe Stemmen) foundation of which Stef was the founder, and the Hack the Government (Hack de Overheid) collective.

Hack de Overheid emerged from the very first Dutch open government barcamp James Burke, Peter Robinett and I organised in the spring of 2008. The second edition in 2009 was the first Hack de Overheid event. My first open data project that same spring was together with James Burke and Alper Çuğun, both part of Hack de Overheid then and providing the tech savvy, and me being the interlocutor with the Ministry for the Interior, to guide the process and interpret the civil servant speak to the tech guys and vice versa. At the time Elsevier (a conservative weekly) published an article naming me one of the founders of Hack de Overheid, which was true in spirit, if technically incorrect.

In the past year and a half I had more direct involvement with the Open State Foundation than in the years between. Last year I did an in-depth evaluation of the effectiveness and lasting impact of the Open State Foundation in the period 2013-2017 and facilitated a discussion about their future, at the request of their director and one of their major funders. That made me appreciate their work in much richer detail than before. My company The Green Land and Open State Foundation also encounter each other on various client projects, giving me a perspective on the quality of their work and their team.

When Stef, as he’s been working in the USA for the past years, indicated he thought it time to leave the board, it coincided with me having signalled to the Open State Foundation that, if there ever was a need, I’d be happy to volunteer for the board. That moment thus came sooner than I expected. A few weeks ago Stef and I met up to discuss it, and then the most recent board meeting made it official.

Day to day the Open State Foundation is run by a very capable team and director. The board is an all volunteer ‘hands-off’ board, that helps the Open State Foundation guard its mission and maintain its status as a recognised charity in the Netherlands. I’m happy that I can help the Open State Foundation to stay committed to their goals of increasing government transparency and as a consequence the agency of citizens. I’m grateful to Stef, and the others that in the past decade have helped Open State Foundation become what it is now, from its humble beginnings at that barcamp in the run-down pseudo-squat of the former Volkskrant offices, now the hipster Volkshotel. I’m also thankful that I now have the renewed opportunity to meaningfully contribute to something I in a tiny way helped start a decade ago.

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