Monday, June 10, 2013

Open Data Strategies for Americans

Something I could not say 9 months ago is how to take an open data resolution and turn it into a strategy. Since that time until late last week I have been thinking about two basic approaches for open data:
  • Data as infrastructure

    Open Government Data as a platform for innovation and economic impact
  • Data toward transparency and accountability

    Open Government Data made available to the public as machine readable requests for information
I am about to make some broad generalizations so feel free to violently disagree with me. I am reporting what I have read, seen and experienced after nearly a year in the trenches watching the open data world mature and unfold.

The Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN), based in Berlin and London, is concerned with open machine readable data. In fact the City of Raleigh has based their open data resolution on the list OKFN open data principles and the Open Data Handbook. Open Raleigh, however, does not use transparency as the primary driver for its open data initiative. Why not? Isn't open data the same as open government? Yes and no but mostly no.

The Transparency Boondoggle

I call attempts at open government the "transparency boondoggle" and here is why you may want to rethink open data, open government and transparency.

  • Transparency is a qualitative value. There is no way to benchmark transparency. One person's transparency is another person's opacity.
  • Open data is often used as a band-aid for truly corrupt organizations. Many governments that get open data right are still amazingly opaque (Hungary comes to mind).
Even if one attempts to use open data as a transparency vehicle, open data is not open government. several organizations use PDFs and other non-machine readable data to reduce operational and transactional opacity. The State of North Carolina has an "open government" section on the home page (with a shout out to +Lois Nilsen). The North Carolina "open government" page has a wonderful set of PDFs and other documents that describe the goings-on and spending of the state.

Wake County too has a wonderful open government portal and has started on an open data portal. Each of these portals has a different purpose and that is what we will talk about below.

Open Data Strategies

On Tuesday of this week I will be speaking with the City and County of Durham on how to start an open data initiative. The PowerPoint deck is mercifully short and speaks to Raleigh's strategy and why we have such high civic engagement.

European Model

Europe, from what I have read, is concerned with "transparent government and not transparent citizens".  That quote is from a study done by a privacy watch-dog group in the United Kingdom and concerns itself with protecting the privacy of British citizens from open data initiatives. The UK is also concerned with the transparency of its government. This is evident in the strategy it has put forth requiring an open data strategy from every ministry and having periodic policy meetings on the transparency or lack thereof within each ministry. In the publication entitled "Unleashing the Potential" the UK Ministry of Information cites "The open data command paper sets out how we're putting data and transparency at the heart of government."

Has this worked? That depends on who you ask. Certainly the United Kingdom has gone as far as any country to open the books and let anyone learn about financial transactions and other interesting bits of data about the country' government.

Other countries have not done as well as expected. Germany has been taken to task by the open data community over licensing issues and Ireland only recently joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) after a long internal struggle over open data. Several countries have open data initiatives that do not provide any appreciable transparency. A simple Google search on this issue will inform you on European open data and what the results to date have been.

There are some advantages to the European model of open data and the transparency drivers behind most open data resolutions initiated under the European Union. The EU has standardized privacy laws. Unlike the US, the EU uniformly has standards to which member countries must comply. This makes it is easy in policy (though not in practice) to promote the idea of "transparent government, not transparent citizens". It also makes it much easier from a policy perspective to advocate for a transparency driver for any open data initiative.

The American Model

Justin Grimes has provided a wonderful diagram that shows the different approaches to open data. One is the (mostly) European model of transparency as the primary driver. The other driver is one of utility and data as a public asset. This latter approach is (mostly) an American model of an open data initiative.


Models of open data initiatives in a diagram. Most European initiatives tend to fall on the blue side while most American initiatives fall on the magenta side. Image License Creative Common Some rights reserved by Justin Grimes.
Note that neither open data model is an absolute. American political rhetoric on open data almost always uses the word "transparency". When transparency enters into the American dialogue, things ted to get messy. Two recent papers on the issue of transparency and open data, open government probably have gotten more press than most.

The Problem with Transparency in America

"When Transparency and Collaboration Collide: The USA Open Data Program" is a critique of the Obama administration's efforts toward a transparent government by using an open data platform at http://data.gov. The paper is by Alon Peled. It is behind a payment gateway but I did purchase a copy for $35.00. Below is the abstract for the paper from the Wiley Publisher's website:

President Obama's inaugural flagship Open Data program emphasizes the values of transparency, participation, and collaboration in governmental work. The Open Data performance data analysis, published here for the first time, proposes that most federal agencies have adopted a passive–aggressive attitude toward this program by appearing to cooperate with the program while in fact effectively ignoring it. The analysis further suggests that a tiny group of agencies are the only “real players” in the Data.gov web arena. This research highlights the contradiction between Open Data's transparency goal (“All data must be freed”) and federal agencies' goal of collaborating with each other through data trade. The research also suggests that agencies comprehended that Open Data is likely to exacerbate three critical, back-office data-integration problems: inclusion, confusion, and diffusion. The article concludes with a proposal to develop an alternative Federal Information Marketplace (FIM) to incentivize agencies to improve data sharing.

The Ambiguity of "Open Government" through Open Data

Harlan Yu and David Robinson discuss the problem with open data and open government in "The New Ambiguity of 'Open Government'". Below is the abstract from Yu and Robinson where they explain the danger of open data toward transparency initiatives:
“Open government” used to carry a hard political edge: it referred to politically sensitive disclosures of government information. The phrase was first used in the 1950s, in the debates leading up to passage of the Freedom of Information Act. But over the last few years, that traditional meaning has blurred, and has shifted toward technology.

Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more accountable to the public), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site — even if it does not become more accountable. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.
As stated above, an opaque regime can cloak itself in open data and be thought of as more transparent than it really is. In fact, if we look at the United States Federal Data.Gov initiative and analyze the data sets that are made available, very few of them give us any insight as to what the government is thinking or how it is rationalizing its behavior toward citizens or other countries.

The Utility of Open Data

Most American initiatives that have proven sustainable and effective are those that side more toward the utility of the data rather than the transparency of the data. Open Raleigh has embraced this philosophy. Transparency is a by-product of a program that seeks to stimulate public/private partnership through the release of high-value data sets that can be used by the community at large.

American state and municipal open data initiatives start with an open data strategy and do not make it about transparency. As we have seen, transparency is hard to bench mark and definitions are ambiguous. Successful open data initiatives make the strategy about government service as a platform and data as a government asset for the people. Open data is about innovation, civic engagement and economic impact.

Open data is only effective through civic engagement. The engagement numbers that Raleigh has generated was through regional events and encouraging the developer community to interact with the city. 

I have made some broad generalization and certainly every open data initiative is unique to the cultural region. There are several approaches to open data. The "transparency boondoggle" in the United States is likely to fail. Relative to most governments, the United States has strong information freedom laws and weak privacy laws. What works in the United States is a direct economic or political benefit to the public sector agency starting the initiative.

Please feel free to disagree with me and post your comments here. I value input from my colleagues and put this out here as ruminations from a sleepy Sunday afternoon.