Tag Archives: opengov

When Governments Don’t Walk the Talk

Last fall the European open data portal project published two reports. One on the potential economic value of open data in Europe, the other taking a look at the maturity of open data efforts in European countries.

Both reports contain interesting insights and conclusions.
Both reports are also useless.

Because the data underneath the reports has not been published. Without explanation.

That is of course rather surprising because the subject of the reports is open data. At least when the topic is openness, all the related material should be open. That is why, when we built the EU PSI Scoreboard in 2011, we published all the underlying data right alongside the scoreboard. As does the Open Data Barometer. As does the Open Data Index. As does the Digital Agenda Scoreboard. But not the European Open Data Portal project. I would have expected the data under both reports by the European Open Data Portal to actually be available in the European Open Data Portal.

Missing data destroys the report’s value
Not having the data renders the report on open data maturity useless:

  • it makes interpretation of the conclusions impossible, as there is no way to see if the assertions chime with the collected data, nor if that data chimes with ones own experience in the field
  • it makes any meaningful discussion about the merits of the report impossible, even where it gives rise to questions (such as, what makes Bulgaria an open data trendsetter?)
  • it makes formulating actions aimed at improvement impossible, as the data to determine what improvements can be made are not available

Thus after reading the report nobody is, nor can they be, any the wiser as to how to move forward.

Cold feet
I approached the European Commission, and through them the authors, to request the data. After a few messages back and forth, the reason that the data is not published became clear: the national representatives involved in the project, such as the members of the EU PSI Group, have witheld publication of the data. I assume because of cold feet and dreading actual comparison between countries. Not publishing the data however, even if not intended as such, is also sending a clear message: “we’re not serious about openness.” The verdict when it comes to European open data maturity therefore is likely “not very mature”.

Requesting data per country needed
A very few countries may pro-actively publish the data about themselves, but most will not. To obtain the data used for the open data maturity report, it is now needed to approach all the national government representatives involved and request the data from them.

Which I intend to do. Help is welcome. [UPDATE: I have approached most of the governments involved, to ask for the information that could make the maturity report actually useful.]

Off to get some closed data

Financial Transparency in the Netherlands, an overview

Recently I participated in a session of the Dutch permanent parliamentary commission on national spending, discussing open financial data. A good reason to give a quick update on open government spending data in the Netherlands.

Current status of open spending
Let’s give you a general overview of open spending in the Netherlands first. As you can see in the Open Data Census, open spending data is the single biggest missing chunk of data in the Netherlands. The national budget is available as open data, since 2012, thanks to the work of the Dutch national audit office, but only on an aggregated level. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is publishing transaction level data on international aid since 2012 as part of IATI, and is the only Dutch public sector body doing this. On a local level some aggregated spending data is available through the Open State Foundation‘s project openspending.nl. In the past months I have gathered local spending data from 25 local councils, and provided it to this project to make comparisons across local governments possible. In a current project with the Province of North-Holland, we are, in collaboration with 10 local governments, aiming to open up the spending data of 50+ local councils. There is no requirement, unlike in the UK, for government bodies to publish open spending data.

Old Parliament
The session took place in the old plenary meeting room of the Parliament

National Audit Authority: Forwards with open spending!
President of the National Audit Authority Saskia Stuiveling had the clearest message during the parliamentary committee meeting, in terms of general outlook as well as leading by example. Even for the audit authority it is often hard to get the right data to properly audit government spending. Opening up spending data by default will help them to concentrate on those parts of public policy where it matters most, e.g. health care spending. To lead by example the audit authority has opened up their own spending data this spring. They also published a ‘Trend Report Open Data‘ tracking the open data efforts of all Ministries, and urging them to do more. Opening up data is becoming a standard advice given in all their audit reports. In other words they are building up pressure for Ministries to do more. (disclosure: I worked with the audit authority on the trend report open data)

Foreign Affairs: Open spending is useful instrument
The Ministry for Foreign Affairs presented itself as a proponent of more financial transparency. Having started publishing open spending data on international development in 2012, they will be launching a (Tableau) based viewer for that data on June 11th, which includes the possibility to drill down to project level information and can link to external sources such as project descriptions published by NGO’s. A viewer like this serves as a replacement for yearly paper based reporting, makes a step towards visualizing impact and not just spending, as well as is a means to motivate more NGO’s towards bigger spending transparency.

Finance Ministry: following Audit Authority’s lead
The Finance Ministry until now has done little towards open spending, but during the session in the Parliament they showed how the work done by the audit authority mentioned above has prodded them into action as well. Triggered by the open data trend report last March, they have now opened up aggregated spending for the first time (update from Rense Posthumus in the comments: data is located at opendata.rijksbegroting.nl). Also the Finance Ministry announced that subsidies data and basic financial data of independent government agencies is available in a viewer in sneak preview, though no URL was given yet. It wasn’t indicated when this would be made publicly available. (UPDATE: see comment by Rense Posthumus) The plan to publish departmental spending for all ministries by 2016 was announced, but made dependent on ‘creating a standard reporting method’ first. That met with resistance in the audience: if the data is good enough for the Finance Ministry to work with, why isn’t it good enough to publish? That argument did seem to resonate with the Ministry director present.

Interior Affairs: very disappointing
A very disappointing contribution was made by the Ministry for the Interior’s deputy director-general. This Ministry is nominally responsible for the open government and open data efforts of the government, as well as in the lead to reform the Freedom of Information Act in light of the new EU Directive on the re-use of public sector information, but in this session showed a shocking lack of vision and no will to act. In 20 minutes nothing was said about open government at all, leaving the attending Members of Parliament confused. Even the actions the Ministry hás taken, such as the launch of the national data portal in 2011, and joining the Open Government Partnership (albeit with an Action Plan that adroitly avoids formulating action), weren’t mentioned. From this presentation one can only conclude that nothing much can be expected from this Ministry in the near future. This means other public sector bodies are left largely to their own devices, which is a shame as it means lots of time will be lost clearing up confusion and raising the general level of knowledge on how to do open government data well. The Ministry for the Interior, being in charge of the open government dossier, is the only one inside government who could claim a much needed role of ‘lighthouse’ and beacon for established good practice, but they’re not on the ball, nor seem to aim to be.

An Exercise In Freedom of Information: Local Spending Data

I have approached all 25 municipalities in my province with a freedom of information (foia) request for local spending data. This is a little side project that serves two purposes:

  • Bringing together spending data for the entire region
  • Establishing the FOIA readiness and processes of municipalities
  • Where does my money go
    Where does my money go? The first financial transparency open data project.

    OpenSpending: getting local spending data
    The main trigger for this is the OpenSpending project which exists as a global project, but also has a separate national Dutch clone at openspending.nl by the Open State Foundation. All Dutch municipalities report their spending and revenue in a fixed format, called IV3, to the Dutch Statistics Office CBS on a quarterly basis. If this data would be available for all municipalities, it would enable great comparison opportunities. Right now, only the data for the city of Amsterdam is available.

    So last October I did a FOIA request in my home town Enschede, to get the spending data, and promptly received it within a week. That data is now findable through the Enschede city data portal. Now that openspending.nl announced it is ready for more data, I decided to try and get some for my entire region. Last Monday I sent out 24 FOIA requests to municipalities in my province for their IV3 files.

    FOIA readiness and process assessment
    Now that I have send out 24 identical FOIA requests for spending data, and have the original one as benchmark, this provides good opportunity to compare the way municipalities deal with FOIA requests. So that provides the second purpose of this exercise.

    I will track the progress of my 24 FOIA requests, and document the results. Thusfar 5 out of 24 have let me know their digital communication path is closed for FOIA, so I have posted letters to those. One (1) municipality quickly confirmed my request, properly recognizing it as a FOIA request and stating it had been forwarded to the right person internally, a handful of others automatically confirmed reception of my e-mail.

    My TEDxZwolle talk: Get to Know Our Ant Hill With Open Data

    Yesterday I presented at TEDxZwolle. For a general audience I presented the case for Open Data, and called upon them to get involved. Because of the potential, but mostly because it is necessary to understand and deal with the complexity of our societies and lives.

    Otherwise we are just ants, with no clue of how the ant hill works, even though we help create it with our actions. In our networked society we need to understand the ant hill.

    Don’t be an ant, understand our ant hill. Get involved. Use Open Data. Understand your world.

    Early May I will be speaking at TEDxTallinn 2013.

    Your Input Needed: Survey on Collaborative e-Government

    In the context of the collaborative production in eGovernment study (more information on www.ourservices.eu) that a consortium I am part of is carrying out for the European Commission, we have prepared an online survey that is focused on innovators – initiators and evangelists of collaborative online services delivery, people who are improving public services “from the outside”. By collaborative production we mean services that engage citizens/civic associations/businesses in the design, delivery and evaluation of public services, irrespective of the service provider (government, civil society or business).
    We are very interested in your views on drivers, barriers and impact of collaborative production, and hope you are willing to take part in our survey.
    We would also appreciate if you could spread the information about the survey in your networks.
    At OurServices.eu I have been collecting examples of collaborative e-government services, and am still adding more. I will also publish there descriptions for each EU Member State concerning these services. You are most welcome to also add your own examples. Please use the form on the website for that.
    Below is a map of the over 100 examples of collaborative e-gov services collected so far.

    Spice Up Your City With Open Gov – #CoCities

    Last weekend the Cognitive Cities conference took place in Berlin. It was very well organized and a inspiring event. Over 300 participants looked at how our digital networked era and cities can co-evolve. One of the organizers, Igor Schwarzmann, approached me to speak there and we settled on Open Government as a theme: how open government might be of help for cities.
    This posting is a write-up of my talk “Spice Up Your City: Just Add OpenGov“.

    New Beijing Cities are complex adaptive systems. That means there is no predictability as to how they evolve and take shape, but you can see how things, once they are there, came to be. We, as human beings, immediately recognize the patterns and structures that emerge in cities. So much so that if someone mimicks those structures and patterns, for instance with pots, pans and other kitchen utensils, we instantly associate it with city scapes. We also intuitively know on a deep level what cities do for us, that they are serendipity hubs: a heady mix of ideas, people and resources that bounce into and off each other, making all kinds of new combinations possible. That intuition is what is worded in the REM quote. Cities, in short, are very exciting things.
    Government on the other hand is mostly seen as much less exciting. And open government can be just as stale. Particularly so if you see open government as something you do for the sake of transparency. Either because you are a civil servant who thinks you need to do it for citizens. Or because you are an activist who thinks the concrete silos of government need to be cracked open so others can see what is going on inside. In both cases it is not for the sake of government or the people creating transparency itself, but for the imagined and assumed sake of unnamed ‘others’.
    Change or DieI however hold a different view of open government, one that comes with a lot more excitement.
    First, for government itself, open government is a ‘change or die’ issue. This is, as Chris Taggart says, the wave of digital disruption hitting government that previously hit the music and publishing industries. Governments institutions and work flows are ‘business models’ from an era when the logistic costs of organizing and scaling were quite different. In the digital era trust in government, as well as its ability to act, will only survive if government opens up and enters into a much more networked way of interacting with the public. If they don’t we all will see there is no wizard behind the curtain and simply route our actions around it, like is the norm in a network where some nodes fail.
    I see open government as consisting of two components: participation + open government data. Now participation in the ‘classic’ way of being consulted at the start of some policy initiative is not what will make open government exciting for citizens. However, participation is actually synonymous with life itself, being an active person in your own social environment. Urban farming is a great example of this. Inner city Detroit has no shops that sell fresh vegetables anymore, and those without cars cannot drive out to shops that do outside the city. So urban farming emerged. Now that is participation!
    CornucopiaOpen data at the same time is a rich untapped resource. Government holds enormous amounts of data about all aspects of society, to be able to execute its tasks. An EU legal framework is in place that, except when privacy and things like state security are concerned, allows citizens to get and re-use that data. Practice is not quite there yet, but ideally open data is data shared in open standards, machine readable, and comes with no legal strings attached.

    Participation and open data need each other. Participation needs to be informed by data, and likewise the re-use of data lies in participation.
    Together, forming open government, they make government as a platform possible, where government asks itself what type of data and information needs to be released so citizens and organizations can come up with the answers to the questions that politicians and policy makers ask. This in contrast to traditional government, where citizens and organizations ask, and politicians and civil servants are expected to come with solutions.
    Martin and ElmineThe place where this can be expressed best and most tangible is right in our own living environments, our cities and neighborhoods.
    That is where all the things happen that matter to us directly. So you get services where you can check if a restaurant is safe and clean enough to go eat, and platforms where citizens can report issues, or discuss what is going on in there neighborhood. This way you can inform yourself and your decisions.
    Using singular data sources can however lead to a pitfall, of making visualizations that are really meaningless, that do not inform at all.
    Much more interesting is when multiple data sources are combined and lead to new insights. That is like us all becoming Dr Snow, who figured out the connection between cholera and water quality in London in the 19th century.
    But why stop at simply informing ourselves, why not also use data to activate ourselves. Why not use data so we can undertake things again. Like the Danish findtoilet.dk which allows people with bladder problems to go out into the city again without having to fear they will not know where the nearest toilet is in case of need. Or alerts send to you when air quality predictions cross a threshold you have set yourself.
    And why not go even one step further. You can start augmenting government data with your own data. Having your own sensors collect data and publish them, like the Dutch sound sensor net created by citizens, or people feeding data into Pachube.com. When government publishes data it turns out that people and organizations are willing to also release data. This is happening in international aid, as well as visible in for instance the food industry.
    But you can go one more step further still. That is building your own sensors, as well as actuators. Create data, and feed data from other sources into smart devices you build. So that these devices can take actions, based on the received data. The means for building those devices are available to you in FabLabs.
    In this stage, we are truly acting like we should in complex environments: data form probes, and measurement has become intervention. That way we can build much more resilient communities. Cities are the perfect platform for data in the context of action and participation. Open government is a key ingredient to spice up our cities.
    It does assume one thing though: your knowledge of a problem is leading, and coding and data skills are the literacy you need and use. Not the other way around. You need intimate knowledge of the issue you are addressing.
    So here’s my challenge and invitation to you, to bring open government into play in your city:
    Global Open Data HackdayFind an issue that matters to you, that you own emotionally. Think about what data you need to address the issue. Then go to government and get that data. But realize that ‘the government’ does not exist. It consists of a multitude of organizations and bodies, and all of those are filled with people. So you just need to find one single civil servant that is willing to help you. I found my single civil servant in my city government, the guy in the blue shirt in the picture, who has been working with me and others to release data. You need to go out and find your guy in the blue shirt.
    Make it real, make it matter to you, make it count. All it takes is just a little shove, to open things up.
    Push here
    (the conference organizers plan to make videos of the talks available soon)