This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Citizen generated data and sensors in public space

As local governments are responsible for our immediate living environment, they are also the ones most confronted with the rise in citizen generated data, and the increase in the use of sensors in our surroundings.

Where citizens generate data this can be both a clash as well as an addition to professional work with data.
A clash in the sense that citizen measurements may provide a counter argument to government positions. That the handful of sensors a local government might employ show that noise levels are within regulations, does not necessarily mean that people don’t subjectively or objectively experience it quite differently and bring the data to support their arguments.
An addition in the sense that sometimes authorities cannot measure something within accepted professional standards. The Dutch institute for environment and the Dutch meteo-office don’t measure temperatures in cities because there is no way to calibrate them (as too many factors, like heat radiance of buildings are in play). When citizens measure those temperatures and there’s a large enough number of those sensors, then trends and patterns in those measurements are however of interest to those government institutions. The exact individual measurements are still of uncertain quality, but the relative shifts are a new layer of insight. With the decreasing prices of sensors and hardware needed to collect data there will be more topics for which citizen generated data will come into existence. The Measure Your City project in my home town, for which I have an Arduino-based sensor kit in my garden is an example.

There’s a lot of potential for valuable usage of sensor data in our immediate living environment, whether citizen generated or by corporations or local government. It does mean though that local governments need to become much more aware than currently of the (unintended) consequences these projects may have. Local government needs to be extremely clear on their own different roles in this context. They are the rule-setter, the one to safeguard our public spaces, the instigator or user, and any or all of those at the same time. It needs an acute awareness of how to translate that into the way local government enters into contracts, sets limits, collaborates, and provides transparency about what exactly is happening in our shared public spaces. A recent article in the Guardian on the ‘living laboratories’ using sensor data in Dutch cities such as Utrecht, Eindhoven, Enschede and Assen shines a clear light on the type of ethical, legal and technical awareness needed. My company has recently created a design and thinking tool (in Dutch) for local governments to balance these various roles and responsibilities. This ties back to my previous point of local governments not being data professionals, and is a lack of expertise that needs to addressed.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Local open data may need national data coordination

To use local open data effectively it may well mean that specific types of local data need to be available for an entire country or at least a region. Where e.g. real time parking data is useful even if it exists just for one city, for other data the interest lies in being able to make comparisons. Local spending data is much more interesting if you can compare with similar sized cities, or across all local communities. Similarly public transport data gains in usefulness if it also shows the connection with regional or national public transport. For other topics like performance metrics, maintenance, quality of public service this is true as well.

This is why in the Netherlands you see various regional initiatives where local governments join forces to provide data across a wider geographic area. In Fryslan the province, capital city of the province and the regional archive collaborate on providing one data platform, and are inviting other local governments to join. Similarly in Utrecht, North-Holland and Flevoland regional and local authorities have been collaborating in their open data efforts. For certain types of data, e.g. the real estate valuations that are used to decide local taxes, the data is combined into a national platform.

Seen from a developer’s perspective this is often true as well: if I want to build a city app that incorporates many different topics and thus data, local data is fine on its own. If I want to build something that is topic specific, e.g. finding the nearest playground, or the quality of local schools, then being able to scale it to national level may well be needed to make the application a viable proposition, regardless of the fact that the users of such an application are all only interested in one locality.

A different way of this national-local interaction is also visible. Several local governments are providing local subsets of national data sets on their own platforms, so it can be found and adopted more easily by locally interested stakeholders. An example would be for a local government to take the subset of the Dutch national address and buildings database, pertaining to their own jurisdiction only. This large data source is already open and contains addresses, and also the exact shapes of all buildings. This is likely to be very useful on a local level, and by providing a ready-to-use local subset local government saves potential local users the effort of finding their way in the enormous national data source. In that way they make local re-use more likely.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Local outreach is key: open data as a policy instrument

Outreach to potential users of open data is needed, to see open data being adopted. Open data can help people and groups to change the way they do things or make decisions. It is a source of agency. Only where such agency is realized does open data create the promised value.

When local governments realize you can do this on purpose, then open data becomes a policy instrument. By releasing specific data, and by reaching out to specific stakeholders to influence behavior, open data is just as much a policy instrument as is setting regulations or providing subsidies and financing. This also means the effort and cost of open data initiatives is no longer seen as non-crucial additions to the IT budget, but gets to be compared to the costs of other interventions in the policy domain where it is used. Then you e.g. compare the effort of publishing real time parking data with measures like blocking specific roads, setting delivery windows, or placing traffic lights, as they are all part of a purposeful effort to reduce inner city traffic. In these comparisons it becomes clear how cheap open data efforts really are.

To deploy open data as a policy instrument, the starting point is to choose specific policy tasks, and around that reach out to external stakeholders to figure out what these stakeholders need to collaboratively change behaviours and outcomes.
E.g. providing digital data on all the different scenario’s for the redesign of a roundabout or busy crossing allows well informed discussions with people living near that crossing, and allows the comparison of different perspectives. In the end this reduces the number of complaints in the planning phase, increases public support for projects and can cut planning and execution time by months.

These type of interventions result in public savings and better public service outcomes, as well as in increased trust between local stakeholders and government.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. A first round of comments was about general open data developments, the second round was focused on how all of that plays out on the level of local governments. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

Local is where you are, but not the data professionals

The local government is closest to our everyday lives. The street we live on, the way we commute to our work, the schools our children attend, the shopping we do and where we park our vehicles for it, the trash to take away, the quality of life in our immediate surroundings, most if not all is shaped by what local government does. Using open data here means potentially the biggest impact for citizens.

This effect is even stronger where many tasks are delegated to local and regional levels of government and where central government is less seen to be leading on open data. This is the case in for instance Germany. In the past years the states and especially municipalities have been the trail blazers in Germany for open data. This because also important things like taking in refugees is very much a local communal matter. This has resulted in open data apps to help refugees navigate German bureaucracy, learn the local language, and find local volunteers to connect to. Similar initiatives were visible in Serbia, e.g. the Techfugee hackathons. In the Netherlands in recent years key tasks on social welfare, youth care and health care have been delegated to the local level.

There is however a crucial difference between local government and many national public sector bodies. At national level many institutions are data professionals and they are focused on one specific domain or tasks. These are for instance the national statistics body, the cadastral offices, the meteorological institute, the highway authorities, or the business register. Municipalities on the other hand are usually not data professionals. Municipalities have a wide variety of tasks, precisely because they are so close to our everyday lives. This is mirrored in the variety of types of data they hold. However local governments in general have a less well developed overall understanding of their information systems, let alone of which data they hold.

This is also apparent from the work I did to help evaluate the EU PSI Directive: where the maturity of the overall information household is lower, it is much harder to embed or do open data well and in a sustainable manner. The lack of mature data governance is holding open data progress and impact back.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

On the fragmentation of community, and the withdrawal into sectors

When open data was in the phase where it was mostly about awareness raising, it was also very much an internationally connected network of people involved. They would meet up regularly at various pan-European events, and frequently exchange experiences. It seems to me that has changed, and that broad network has fragmented. I realize this is caused by the need to focus on actual projects and implementation work, and also by open data becoming more common place. That open data has become a more routine part of various other work and initiatives means also open data is becoming a point of discussion in events not centered on open data. It is a sign of increasing maturity, but we’re also losing something.

The fragmentation of the European network of people interested in open data, means we all are generally less aware of what is happening elsewhere, the solutions others find in overcoming organizational barriers to openness, the ways other groups find valuable ways to use open data etc. It can also mean stakeholders don’t realize opportunities or solutions are within their reach, and have already been done elsewhere. This then means a reduction in the agency of those stakeholders, while the stated intent of opening data is to increase that very same agency.

There are many active open data efforts in many countries, and it is now usually a more integral part of how various sectors organise themselves. In the geo sector as well as e.g. in journalism awareness of data is alive and well. Next month e.g. there’s the International Journalism Festival, and at least one panel there focuses on data (Titled “conversations with data”). Within data journalism there is currently more focus on investigative work, and that usually means it’s not focused on openly available data as much. In other sectors we see similar things. In academic research circles that depend on shared infrastructure (think the LHC at CERN in Geneva, or radio telescopes), data sharing is common too. In other research circles data awareness may be less developed yet. Archiving is another sector where attention for data has become commonplace. However all those efforts are less connected to general open data efforts, and less part of a shared understanding or narrative. This reduces the potential re-use of eachother’s insights and experiences and again diminishes the speed of development and overall impact.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

The opportunity the GDPR presents

Many European government entities I encounter worry about the GDPR, the personal data protection rules that will start being enforced from next May. They see it as hugely important but also an uncertain factor. Part of that uncertainty is in not really knowing how to implement it well. Also the relationship with things like open data are unclear to most.

Two elements I stressed in the panel discussion: 
First, open data builds on public data, and everything that is restricted because of the GDPR is not public by definition. So in that sense everything you do concerning open data is disconnected from the GDPR. However as I mentioned at the end of the first part of my notes, there is an issue with the privacy implications that may arise from downstream usage and recombination of open data sets. The current legal framework does not solve it, it assumes that the GDPR precedes the PSI Directive, so that only data where the GDPR does not apply will be subject to the PSI Directive. Yet at the same time the GDPR does say things about future usage and effects concerning data that for instance has been released under the PSI Directive, and that currently in turn might invalidate the original conclusion the PSI Directive applies. In short: the GDPR contains non-linear feedback loops, but the sequencing of GDPR and PSI Directive assumes a steady linear path without feedback loops.

Second, I however see the GDPR as a tremendous opportunity for open data to become much more deeply embedded in information processes and systems design inside government. 
The GDPR calls for data protection by design ,as well as for keeping up with the state of the art while doing that. This means personal data protection can no longer be a mere fence around your data, but needs to be designed into your data structures. This means at every stage of your work precisely knowing where in your data structures what types of data reside. It means being able to within a single data set distinguish between fields that need protection and fields that don’t, or only do in specific instances. Any usage restrictions that may apply on the basis of the GDPR basically has to be captured into metadata for the data itself. To me it makes no sense to just do this for the GDPR, for person related data only. It however makes a lot of sense to me to do this for

  • openness (what is public, when under which conditions),
  • data security (in the sense of the needed guaranteed availability and quality of data, ensuring uptime and making tampering impossible)
  • data protection (privacy, third party rights, economic issues and other openness exemptions)
  • digital archiving (archiving terms, mandatory destruction of data)

“Everything by design” in short, not just privacy (or openness) by design. The implementation of the GDPR is an opportunity to embed it all in the digital transformation of government and get to much more mature data governance.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

On Open Data as infrastructure, and how open data is going under the hood

Several countries such as UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland are regarding openness of key government data sets as infrastructure. There they’ve come to see that these core data sets also play a role in enabling the re-use of other data sets, as they provide a backbone or way to combine them.
Also open data in various places has become a more common part of how government operates or how people use data. This means it moves into more general and mainstream topics such as general IT or data management. As a result open data is becoming less visible as a separate topic.

In the Netherlands for instance the digitization of all processes concerning activities and permits etc in public spaces is largely being done through open data. The law demands a level playing field in terms of the same information being available to all stakeholders easily. Government entities are now building ‘information houses’ to cater for that, and open data is the primary way they see for achieving that. Similarly in the Netherlands there are 5 software vendors for information systems for city councils (decisions, meeting reports, voting records etc). Those 5 now have open data adapters in their software, meaning they provide fully accessible API’s. Because of it individual councils no longer really need to consider open data, their software systems will do it for them. Last year only a handful municipalities had their council docs as open data as proof of concept, as of last month 100 opened up, and in the coming time the remaining 300 will do so as well. This project is driven by CSO Open State Foundation, the national association of municipalities in collaboration with the 5 vendors, and no longer an individual thing for a single municipality. As all the provinces use the same software it likely will soon be true for them as well.

Where open data is nicely embedded in the regular processes of government structures, and that is as it should be, the open data efforts and results are becoming less and less visible, up to the point where you’ll only notice its absence, like with any other infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and phones.

Yet that visibility, of both good practice and of impact, is still very much needed to drive open data forward to include all European government entities equally and all government data equally. We are nowhere near that point yet, but paradoxically the things that already have been achieved may be making it harder to keep up the momentum to do more.

This week, as part of the Serbian open data week, I participated in a panel discussion, talking about international developments and experiences. This is one part of a multi-posting overview of my speaking notes.

On EU and Global Trends

The team behind the European data portal publish yearly reports (2017 PDF) on how EU countries are doing. They see the differences between previous front runners and later starters becoming smaller. That is a good thing, as it means there is an emerging general European level of maturity in open data.

At the same time I feel a lot of momentum has been lost as well. The UK for instance is much less active under the current government than e.g. 7 years ago. Similarly in the Netherlands I hear ministries who were very active previously ask for what the next big thing is, where to go next, whether open data or something else. This sounds like (relatively) early adopters are moving on, and if they do not leave sustainable structures behind, open data will stall.

Globally we see more populistic governments tending to less transparency. Such as in the US, where government data has been removed from websites.
My colleague Paul was in the Czech Republic last week and came back with an example of a regressive step: the Czech government has reinstated charges for meteorological data. There is no rational argument for charging for access to digital government data, especially not for meteo. While current legally mandated charges are historically understandable, reinstating charges that were previously abolished is not.

The mentioned latest EU report on open data maturity advices several things to drive open data forward:

  • Embed open data into normal data management, and into digital transformation of the public sector. This is certainly a key thing.
  • Do more impact studies to show evidence. I think that particularly micro-economic impact studies are very important, such as we are currently doing for the ESA, but they are time consuming and intensive, and I encounter little will in government bodies to really do them. At a political level policy impact assessment isn’t popular either.
  • Intensify steady external stakeholder engagement. Extremely important I think, as those external stakeholders are the ones creating the impact and realising the value of open data. But going outside and listening to the needs of stakeholders has proven to be scary for most government bodies, even if they know how to go about it.
  • Start looking at privately held data in domains that are close to the public interest. Think of fields like energy transition, health care, etc. This to me is certainly a next step, not just in terms of companies realising the need for action, but also in terms of governments realising there is a legitimate public interest in getting access to cereain privately held data. There is also an increasingly important role for citizen generated data that ties into this.

All in all I think most governments now have experienced it is not enough to just publish data. You have to go out there and provoke re-use, ensure that everyone knows what you have to offer. That is real work and not all government entities are willing or able to make that effort.

The current EU regulation on the usage of open data, the PSI Directive is under review (I’ve done some of the evaluation work for it for the Netherlands in December and January). I hope the rules won’t change much, other than maybe ensuring better alignment with the GDPR, and solving the issues that result from downstream usage of open data. It has only been 2 years since the last PSI Directive changes were implemented, and in most countries the effect of that isn’t fully visible yet.

This week is Open Data Week in Serbia. It kicked off on Tuesday with a conference session, and an unconference. I was invited to join a panel on current trends and developments. The panel was balanced to provide a nicely layered perspective. Where my role was to talk about global and European developments, my UNDP colleague Lejla Sadiku provided insight into developments in the Balkans and the wider eastern European region. The perspective on Serbia itself was provided by Мihailo Jovanovic who is the director of the Serbian government office for IT en e-government, and Djordje Krivokapic who represented Serbian civil society.

The panel, ltr, Djordje, me, Lejla (speaking), Mihailo, and Slobodan (moderator). Photo: Aca Ivic

We did two rounds of comments from the panel, and then discussion with the other participants in the room. The first round focused on general developments and trends, the second round focused on how that plays out for local government and cities / communities.

Spread out over the coming 8 postings are the notes I used for my statements in the panel. I am posting them as separate blog postings, as otherwise the postings get quite long. The first 4 are observations about the general open data developments and trends I see. The second 4 are observations about open data developments in local settings.

General observations:

  1. EU and Global Trends
  2. Open data as infrastructure, going under the hood
  3. The GDPR is an opportunity
  4. Fragmented community, splitting into sectors

Local government level observations:

  1. Local is where you are, but not the data professionals
  2. Well considered outreach is key
  3. Local data may need national coordination
  4. Citizen generated data, and sensors in public space

I will also post some thoughts about the unconference session where we discussed more deeply the role of open data in local government settings.

I participated in the Serbian open data week the past days. Taking last Saturday’s international open data day as a starting point, the Serbian open data week is organized by both the Serbian government office for IT and e-government and the UNDP in Serbia, in collaboration with civil society groups such as the coworking spaces of Startit Centar.

On Tuesday there was a formal conference with many government representatives, in which I joined a panel to discuss international trends in open data on both the general and the local level. Also there local government and civil society open data efforts presented themselves. Later that same day there was an unconference in the Belgrade Startit Centar in which I had the opportunity to talk with both civil society as well as local government representatives about our work in the Netherlands deploying open data as a tool to achieve specific local policy outcomes. The rest of the week long program consists of both internal sessions with government bodies to help them move forward with open data, and awareness raising sessions, data clinics and training in coworking spaces across cities in Serbia.

I will publish my notes from both sessions I participated in, divided over a series of blog postings here.

Otvoreni Podaci – Otvorene Mogucnosti / Open data – open opportunities

It was good to be back in Serbia, three years after doing a national open data readiness assessment, and two years after last working with the national government open data working group building action plans for specific institutions. In the years since then momentum hasn’t dried up, and I met many people again who have been involved since my earlier visits, as well as many new faces from new involved institutions. (As an indicator, 2 years ago the open data working group consisted of about 8 institutions, but now is comprised of some 70 organisations from all over Serbia) This week my translator was the same lady who accompanied me 3 years ago. She said that back then she didn’t believe anything would change, but “look at us now”, and that in every government document she is asked to translate open data is mentioned. Indeed, look at Serbia now. As anyplace else, there is still much to do, but also much has been gained already.

UNDP Serbia has formed a pool of open data consultants to assist the Serbian government in moving ahead with open data, and I’m happy to be involved until July 2019. In the coming weeks I will be doing an ex-ante exploration of the impact open data can have in Serbia, together with my Serbian colleague Vid Stimac. This week we had a planning session, in Dutch surprisingly as he went to university here.