Tag Archives: opendata

Suggested Reading: Imbecility, Replication Crisis, IoT and more

Some links I thought worth reading the past few days

Data Worlds, to Understand the Politics of Data

Jonathan Gray has published an article on Data Worlds, as a way to better understand and experiment with the consequences of the datafication of our lives. The article appeared in Krisis, an open access journal for contemporary philisophy, in its latest edition dealing with Data Activism.

Jonathan Gray writes

The notion of data worlds is intended to make space for thinking about data as more than simply a representational resource, and the politics of data as more than a matter of liberation and protection. It is intended to encourage exploration of the performative capacities of data infrastructures: what they do and could do differently, and how they are done and could be done differently. This includes consideration of, as Geoffrey Bowker puts it, “the ways in which our social, cultural and political values are braided into the wires, coded into the applications and built into the databases which are so much a part of our daily lives”

He describes 3 ‘data worlds’, and positions them as an instrument intended for practical usage.

The three aspects of data worlds which I examine below are not intended to be comprehensive, but illustrative of what is involved in data infrastructures, what they do, and how they are put to work. As I shall return to in the conclusion, this outline is intended to open up space for not only thinking about data differently, but also doing things with data differently. The test of these three aspects is therefore not only their analytical purchase, but also their practical utility.

Those 3 worlds mentioned are

  1. Data Worlds as Horizons of Intelligibility, where data is plays a role in changing what is sayable, knowable, intelligible and experienceable , where data allows us to explore new perspectives, arrive at new insights or even new overall understanding. Hans Rosling’s work with Gapminder falls in this space, and datavisualisations that combine time and geography. To me this feels like approaching what John Thackara calls Macroscopes, where one finds a way to understand complete systems and one’s own place and role in it, and not just the position of oneself. (a posting on Macroscopes will be coming)
  2. Data Worlds as Collective Accomplishments, where consequences (political, social, economic) result from not just one or a limited number of actors, but from a wide variety of them. Open data ecosystems and the shifts in how civil society, citizens and governments interact, but also big data efforts by the tech industry are examples Gray cites. “Looking at data worlds as collective accomplishments includes recognising the role of actors whose contributions may otherwise be under-recognised.
  3. Data Worlds as Transnational Coordination, in terms of networks, international institutions and norm setting, which aim to “shape the world through coordination of data“. In this context one can think of things like IATI, a civic initiative bringing standardisation and transparency to international aid globally, but also the GDPR through which the EU sets a new de-facto global standard on data protection.

This seems at first reading like a useful thinking tool in exploring the consequences and potential of various values and ethics related design choices.

(Disclosure: Jonathan Gray and I wore both active in the early European open data community, and are co-authors of the first edition/iteration of the Open Data Handbook in 2010)

End of an Era in Flanders Open Data

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.

Dutch Provinces Looking for Open Data Inspiration

Last week ten of the twelve Dutch Provinces met at the South-Holland Provincial government to discuss open data, and exchange experiences, seeking to inspire each other to do more on open government data. I participated as part of my roles as open data project lead for both the Province of Overijssel, and the Province Fryslân.

There were several topics of discussion.

  • The National Open Government Action Plan (part of the OGP effort), a new version of which is due next spring, and for which input is currently sought by the Dutch government.
  • A proposal by the team behind the national open data platform to form a ‘high value data list’ for provincial data sets.
  • Several examples were discussed of (open) data being used to enhance public interaction.

I want to briefly show those examples (and might blog about the other two later).

Make it usable, connect to what is really of significance to people
Basically the three examples that were presented during the session present two lessons:

1) Make data usable, by presenting them better and allow for more interaction. That way you more or less take up position half-way between what is/was common (presenting only abstracted information), and open data (the raw detailed data): presenting data in a much more detailed way, and making it possible for others to interact with the data and explore.

2) Connect to what people really care about. It is easy to assume what others would want to know or would need in terms of data, it is less easy to actually go outside and listen to people and entrepreneurs first what type of data they need around specific topics. However, it does provide lots of vital clues as to what data will actually find usage, and what type of questions people want to be able to solve for themselves.

That second point is something we always stress in our work with governments, so I was glad to hear it presented at the session.

There were three examples presented.

South-Holland put subsidies on a map
The Province of South-Holland made a map that shows where subsidies are provided and for what. It was made to better present to the public the data that exists about subsidies, als in order to stimulate people to dive deeper into the data. The map links to where the actual underlying data should be found (but as far as I can tell, the data isn’t actually provided there). A key part of the presentation was about the steps they took to make the data presentable in the first place, and how they created a path for doing that which can be re-used for other types of data they are seeking to house in their newly created data warehouse. This way presenting other data sources in similar ways will be less work.


The subsidy map

Gelderland provides insight into their audit-work
Provinces have a task in auditing municipal finances. The Province of Gelderland has used an existing tool (normally used for presenting statistical data) to provide more detail about the municipal finances they audited. Key point here again was to show how to present data better to the public, how that plays a role in communicating with municipalities as well, and how it provides stepping stones to entice people to dive deeper. The tool they use provides download links for the underlying data (although the way that is done can still be significantly improved, as it currently only allows downloads of selections you made, so you’d have to sticht them back together to reconstruct the full data set)



Screenshot of the Gelderland audit data tool

Flevoland listens first, then publishes data
The last example presented was much less about the data, and much more about the ability to really engage with citizens, civil society and businesses and to stimulate the usage of open data that way. The Province Flevoland is planning major renovation work on bridges and water locks in the coming years, and their aim is to reduce hindrance. Therefore they already now, before work is starting, are having conversations with various people that live near or regularly pass by the objects that will be renovated. To hear what type of data might help them to less disrupt their normal routines. Resulting insights are that where currently plans are published in a generic way, much more specific localized data is needed, as well as much more detailed data about what is going to happen in a few days time. This allows people to be flexible, such as a farmer deciding to harvest a day later, or to move the harvest aways over water and not the road. Detailed data also means communicating small changes and delays in the plans. Choosing the right channels is important too. Currently e.g. the Province announces construction works on Twitter, but no local farmer goes there for information. They do use a specific platform for farmers where they also get detailed data about weather, water etc, and distributing localized data on construction works there would be much more useful. So now they will collaborate with that platform to reach farmers better. (My company The Green Land is supporting the Province, 2 municipalities and the water board in the province, in this project)


Overview of the 16 bridges and waterlocks that will be renovated in the coming years


Various stakeholders around each bridge or waterlock are being approached

FOSS4G Keynote: Open Data for Social Impact

Last week I had the pleasure to attend and to speak at the annual FOSS4G conference. This gathering of the community around free and open source software in the geo-sector took place in Bonn, in what used to be the German parliament. I’ve posted the outline, slides and video of my keynote already at my company’s website, but am now also crossposting it here.

Speaking in the former German Parliament
Speaking in the former plenary room of the German Parliament. Photo by Bart van den Eijnden

In my talk I outlined that it is often hard to see the real impact of open data, and explored the reasons why. I ended with a call upon the FOSS4G community to be an active force in driving ethics by design in re-using data.

Impact is often hard to see, because measurement takes effort
Firstly, because it takes a lot of effort to map out all the network effects, for instance when doing micro-economic studies like we did for ESA or when you need to look for many small and varied impacts, both socially and economically. This is especially true if you take a ‘publish and it will happen’ approach. Spotting impact becomes much easier if you already know what type of impact you actually want to achieve and then publish data sets you think may enable other stakeholders to create such impact. Around real issues, in real contexts, it is much easier to spot real impact of publishing and re-using open data. It does require that the published data is serious, as serious as the issues. It also requires openness: that is what brings new stakeholders into play, and creates new perspectives towards agency so that impact results. Openness needs to be vigorously defended because of it. And the FOSS4G community is well suited to do that, as openness is part of their value set.

Impact is often hard to see, because of fragmentation in availability
Secondly, because impact often results from combinations of data sets, and the current reality is that data provision is mostly much too fragmented to allow interesting combinations. Some of the specific data sets, or the right timeframe or geographic scope might be missing, making interesting re-uses impossible.
Emerging national data infrastructures, such as the Danish and the Dutch have been creating, are a good fix for this. They combine several core government data sets into a system and open it up as much as possible. Think of cadastral records, maps, persons, companies, adresses and buildings.
Geo data is at the heart of all this (maps, addresses, buildings, plots, objects), and it turns it into the linking pin for many re-uses where otherwise diverse data sets are combined.

Geo is the linking pin, and its role is shifting: ethics by design needed
Because of geo-data being the linking pin, the role of geo-data is shifting. First of all it puts geo-data in the very heart of every privacy discussion around open data. Combinations of data sets quickly can become privacy issues, with geo-data being the combinator. Privacy and other ethical questions arise even more now that geo-data is no longer about relatively static maps, but where sensors are making many more objects as well as human beings objects on the map in real time.
At the same time geo-data is becoming less visible in these combinations. ‘The map’ is not neccessarily a significant part of the result of combining data sets, just a catalyst on the way to get there. Will geo-data be a neutral ingredient, or will it be an ingredient with a strong attitude? An attitude that aims to actively promulgate ethical choices, not just concerning privacy, but also concerning what are statistically responsible combinations, and what are and are not legal steps in getting to an in itself legal result again? As with defending openness itself, the FOSS4G community is in a good position to push the ethical questions forward in the geo community as well as find ways of incorporating them directly in the tools they build and use.

The video of the keynote has been published by the FOSS4G conference organisers.
Slides are available from Slideshare and embedded below:

Data Sovereignty as Prerequisite for Open Data Agency

As we are living in a networked world, increasingly government bodies execute their tasks while collaborating in networks of various other stakeholders. This also happens when it comes to collecting, providing or working with data as part of public tasks. One of the potential detrimental side effects is that it quickly becomes unclear who can decide to open such data up. Or whether a government entity, who wants to publish data as part of a policy intervention, still feels able to do so. This ability to decide over your own data, I call data sovereignty. I think without proper attention, the data sovereignty of public institutions is under pressure in collaborative situations and a threat to the freedom of public entities to decide and act on their own open data efforts. This is especially problematic where the lack of data sovereignty hinders public entities in deploying open data as a policy instrument.

I have just completed an inventory of the data sets that a Dutch province holds and the visible erosion of data sovereignty was the main unexpected outcome for me.
This erosion takes different shapes. Here are a few examples of it, encountered in the Province I mentioned:

  • Data collection on businesses locations and the number of people they employ (to track employment per municipality per sector) is being pooled by all provinces (as a national level data set is more useful). The pooling takes place in a separate legal entity. It is unclear if this entity still falls under FOIA and re-use regulations. This entity also exploits the data by selling it. Logical at the organisational level perhaps, but illogical in comparison with the provincial public task (and maybe not even legal under the Re-Use law). Opening up the data needs to be done through that new entity, meaning not just convincing yourself, but all other provinces as well as the entity who has commercial interest in not being convinced. The slowest will thus set the speed.
  • Data collection on traffic flows, collected by the Province, is stored directly in a national data warehouse (NDW). Again pooling data makes it more useful, but the Province cannot store cleaned data there (anomalies filtered out, pattern changes explained etc.), so always needs to redo that cleaning and filtering whenever they want to work or access their own data. Although the publicly owned NDW now publishes open data, until recently they saw themselves as a commercial outfit, adverse to the notion of open data.
  • Data collection on bicycle traffic, done by the Province, is stored in the online database of a French service provider active in the entire EU. Ownership of the data is unclear. The Province only accesses the data through the French website. If a FOIA request came, it would be unclear if providing the data runs counter to any rights the service provider is claiming.
  • Data collection on the prevalence of bird species is being collected in collaboration with nature preservation groups and large numbers of volunteers. The Province pays for the data collection, but the nature preservation groups claim their volunteers (by virtue of their voluntary efforts) are the rightful owners of the data. Without seeking internal legal advice, the discussion remains unsolved and stalls.

None of these situations are unsolvable, all of them can get a definitive answer. The issue however is that nobody is clearly in a position, or has the explicit role to make sure such an definitive answer gets formulated. Because of that, uncertainties remain, which easily leads to inaction. If and when the Province wants to act to open data up, it therefore easily runs into all kinds of questions that will slow action down, or ensure action does not get taken.

It is entirely logical that public entities are collaborating in networks with other public entities and domain-specific stakeholders for the collection, dissemination and use of data. It is also certain, given our networked society and the drive for efficiency, the number of situations where such collaboration takes place will only rise. However, for the drive towards more openness it is detrimental when ownership of public data becomes unclear, gets transferred to an entity that potentially falls outside the scope of FOIA, or falls under the rights of a private entity, just because nobody sought to clarify such matters at the outset.

Public entities should learn to strongly guard their data sovereignty if they want to maintain their own agency in using opening up data as a policy instrument. Moving to open by design as a default for the public sector, requires stopping the erosion of data sovereignty.

A month in Lucca: week 3

The second full week in Lucca, where we are staying the month of July, with a week before it, and some days after in Switzerland.

Turismo
This week contained a few regular tourist outings. One right at the start to the city of Pisa and its leaning tower. Even on a relatively early Monday morning it was already pretty crowded. But as soon as you walk away from the ‘piazza dei miracoli‘ into the streets of Pisa, you quickly lose most of the other visitors. Then you get to see a few glimpses of regular life in this old university town. Like students celebrating their graduation, such as the group next to us on the terrace where we had lunch. Or the anarchist writings on the walls across town and a coffee place that did not look like it had been there for ages.

Pisa Pisa
Tourists holding up the tower of Pisa, and a student coffee shop

Pisa Pisa
Pisa street art, and anarchistic posters

As we are near the Mediterranean coast we of course also had to take in a sunset on the beach. So one evening we drove to Viareggio, a to me rather unappealing seaside town, driving past the endless row of privatized beaches, to the public beach right at the edges. The cloudless sky gave us plenty of time to enjoy the sun sinking into the sea.

Viareggio Viareggio
Sunset over the Mediterranean

The end of the week we took a train to Firenze. The 80 minute train trip turned out to be surprisingly cheap, compared to home, at 7 Euro one way. We arrived at the 1930’s Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, an example of Italian modernism. Starting from the notion that form should reflect functionality, it is a spacious thing with great filtered daylight, serving some 60 million passengers annually. The architects sought to balance the station with its urban surroundings and the church Santa Maria Novella opposite. Many of the internal details (from the turnstiles, to the benches, and the markers at the beginning of the platforms) were additionally designed by a state architect and more reflective of Italian fascism / realism.

Firenze Firenze
The Firenze cathedral, and inside the Uffizi

Stepping away from the station you are immediately transported from the 1930’s to the 1400’s when De’ Medici’s put their remarkable stamp on the city. We explored the cathedral, with a great archeological exhibit in the cellars about the pre-existing paleo-Christian church, and visited the Ponte Vecchio of course. We ended the day with a visit to the office. De’ Medici’s uffizi from 1580, not a newfangled coworking space of course, and walked through the endless halls of the ancient family’s enormous collection of art housed there. Even taking in as little as we did from Firenze, we still walked 20 kilometers just that one day.

Finding the old, finding the new
Within the city walls of Lucca you can still see the original street pattern from when the Romans turned this place into a colony in 180BCE. From the Forum where the San Michele church now stands, where the two main perpendicular Roman roads still cross (Fillungo/Cenami and Roma/Santa Croce), to the square built on top of the Roman amphitheater, and the Medieval streets that still largely follow the Roman grid pattern. In other words Lucca is old. Tradition is also a highly visible factor in the shops, and the food on offer. The compactness of the inner city, with its beautiful walls, basically invite this and it is very attractive for tourists. So the old is easy to spot and delivered in large quantities.

Lucca Lucca
Traditional shop front in Lucca, and a retro interior of a hipper shop

Yet I also want to seek out the new, the ‘scene’ in Lucca, if it exists. But it turns out to be harder to find traces of that.

Lucca "Wearing my mask" on a wall in Lucca
Lucca street art

Within the city there are few traces of e.g. street art, although there are wall communiqués from political movements. There is a weekly artisanal market, but most of that is very classic (honey, soap, bijouterie) and not by younger people. Some clothing shops seem to cater to a hipper clientele, and vegetarianism/veganism is apparently a flourishing niche market. But again those traces are few. In general I don’t see many younger people on the streets, nor outside the inner city.

Lucca Lucca
Parked bike, political pamphlet, in Lucca

Searching online for traces of open data or maker communities didn’t yield anything. There are nearby FabLabs in Pisa, Cascina, Firenze and Contea, but noone responded yet to a question about contacts in Lucca, although they did organize a FabLab information evening here in March.

Likewise there is an open data project for the Province of Lucca, but the contact person has not responded to my mail. A posting to the Italian open data mailing list did get a response from someone some 200km away, and one other who lives closer. I will try and talk to them both soon.

Cycling is big in Lucca and I spotted fixies as well, the latter a sign of at least some urban scene existing. A few doors down from our apartment is Ciclo DiVino, a bike shop combined with a wine bar. Their expressed mission is to bring together and build a local community around cycling. That seems to work, not only because of the fixies, but because multiple evenings per week the street in front of their shop is filled with 20-somethings sipping drinks and enjoying eachothers conversations.

So maybe we should start hanging out there for our aperitivo’s the coming days, to hear more about what is going on here locally.

Firenze Firenze
Firenze street art

Flemish Open Data Day 2015

Today I am in Brussels, as a guest of the Flemish government. For the fourth time the ‘open data day’ is held in Flanders, bringing together public and private sector to explore possibilities for open data. I gave the opening keynote this morning, on building public services with ‪#‎opendata‬ in collaboration with other stakeholders.

At the request of Noel van Herreweghe, the organizer and Flanders’ open data program manager, I focussed on public service delivery with open data. My main message elements were to start from where you want to see impact, and then mobilize data and people around in such a way that the data change the opportunities stakeholders have to act.

In my examples I showed how it does take a different perspective on public service, with the citizen at the center of the design, not the internal processes. And that with open data you bring many more new stakeholders to the table, which makes collaborative services possible that become better as more people use them. In practice we see that in many cases civil society organizations or businesses create front-ends to what essentially are public services. At the same time, also data collection can be collaborative (such as BANO in France).
To turn government into a platform, a system of connected core reference data sets is a fundamental element. Denmark and the Netherlands have such systems, which are largely open data as well. France and others are discussing this, and Belgium and Flanders have identified some what they call ‘authentic data sources’. This allows others to build on this fundament, creating value that way. The end game for government itself is to be open by default and by design, as well as providing performance data on dashboards generated from live open data streams. This allows the public to simultaneously see, interact with and use the data for service provision and provide feedback.

Slides are online:

Open Data Readiness Assessment in Serbia

The week before last I worked on an Open Data Readiness Assessment (ODRA) for Serbia during a week long mission to Belgrade. It is part of my work for the World Bank and done in close collaboration with the local UNDP team, at the request of the Serbian directorate for e-government (part of the ministry for administration (reform) and local authorities).

Next to me visiting a wide range of agencies with local colleagues Irena and Aleksandar, my colleague Rayna did a roundtable with civil society organisations, and my colleague Laura a roundtable and a number of conversations with the business community. We also had a session with UN representatives, and WB project managers, to mainstream open data in their project portfolio.

Belgrado Belgrado
the unfinished orthodox Saint Sava church, and the brutalist ‘western gate’ Genex tower

Throughout the week we invited everyone we met inside government who seemed to be interested or have energy/enthusiasm for open data for a meeting on the last day of the mission. There we presented our first results, but also made sure that everyone could see who the other change agents across government are, as a first step of building connections between them.

The final day we also had a session with various donor organisations, chaired by the UNDP representative, to explain the potential of open data and present the first ODRA results.

In the coming few weeks the remaining desk research (such as on the legal framework) will be done, and the draft ODRA report and action plan will be prepared. A delivery mission is foreseen for September. In the meantime I will aim to also spend time helping to strengthen local community building around open data.

Belgrado Belgrado
Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Defence building that was bombed in 1999 by NATO

In Serbia, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and ensuing wars (Bosnia, Croatia), the Milosevic era, international sanctions, and NATO bombardments during the Kosovo conflict (1999), have left deep marks on the structures and functioning of government and other institutions (as elsewhere in the region).

I had always more or less assumed that in the early nineties the former Yugoslavian federal institutions had morphed into what are now the Serbian national institutions. Instead these federal structures largely dissolved, leaving gaps in terms of compentencies and structures, which are not helped by (legacies of) corruption and political cronyism. Serbia is a candidate for EU Membership, meaning a path of slow convergence to EU policies and regulations.