Open Up! Raw Data Now!

On November 13, entrepreneurs, government and civil society came together in London at Open Up!, an open government conference sponsored by the Omidyar Network and the UK Department for International Development, in association with Wired magazine. Omidyar Network partner Stephen King views the conference as an opportunity for thought leaders from different sectors “to discuss how technology is changing the relationship between government and the governed.”

In an article previewing Open Up!, creator of the World Wide Web (WWW) and Web Foundation founding director Sir Tim Berners-Lee argues that the goals of the open government movement, particularly the free movement of open government data (OGD), are similar to those that define the WWW. The invention of the WWW in 1989 sprung, in part, from Berners-Lee’s frustration over the inefficiency of unlinked documents, even at very advanced, networked places like the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN). This simple frustration and seemingly simple solution obviously unlocked previously unimaginable benefits.

The first and most obvious advantage of creating an open, linked ecosystem for documents and data is the creation of a massive repository of information. “For data, as for documents, the value of any part of the web is increased by the amount of other stuff out there. For documents it is the ability to follow links, but for open data it is the ability to also interconnect and join, to summarise and compare, to monitor, extrapolate, to infer.” It may seem impossible, but Berners-Lee seems to believe that an open data ecosystem will actually create more value and insight than the linked document ecosystem represented by the WWW.

Speaking specifically of open government data, Berners-Lee argues that open data initiatives have differing value propositions depending on whether they are implemented in the developed or in the developing world. In the U.S. and UK, for example, the release of data catalyzed a “growing movement of hackers and activists and even internal government agencies and corporations” that “can begin to use the previously unconnected and undissected numbers, images and graphs to create new ways for you to access valuable new information.”

While new products and services in the developed world, like FixMyStreet, represent innovative, valuable uses of OGD, developing nations like Ghana are beginning to embrace open data for more immediate, essential aims, like extracting and analyzing public data to ensure that journalists’ news stories are rooted in fact. Another initiative focused on the developing world, the Open Data Research network, led by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the World Wide Web Foundation, is bringing researchers together “to explore the emerging impacts of open data in developing countries, and to better understand how it is impacting upon decision making and implementation.”

The World Wide Web Foundation recently launched The Web Index is another interesting method for advocating for more open governments. The Index is a tool that seeks to demonstrate “the web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations” by ranking 61 countries based on their measurable commitment to a free and open Internet. Among the metrics used to determine a country’s ranking—Sweden earned the top spot in the inaugural index—is the availability of open data. Entrepreneurs and open data evangelists both represent act as advocates for open data, but the perhaps the Web Index’s system of praising more open nations and shaming more closed nations—in an objective, data-based fashion—will have an even greater effect.

Whether the eventual result is repaired potholes in the U.S. or cleaner drinking water in Sub-Saharan Africa, Berners-Lee says, “The simple message to governments around the world must be consistent and forceful: raw data, now!” Like many working in the open government space, Berners-Lee does not propose that governments should attempt to predict the effects of open data initiatives; rather, governments need to increase access, and “innovation, transparency, accountability, better governance and economic growth,” as well as improved service delivery and the more efficient use of resources are likely to follow organically.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee—who calls Open Up! “a great meeting place for those interested, a window onto the state of the art, and a place to set new directions for the future”— is not the only person encouraged by the developments in the open government space in general, and the Open Up! conference in particular.

Ian Steadman, writing for conference co-sponsor Wired, highlights the importance of events like Open Up! in keeping up with “the fast-moving field of government accountability.” Because of stakeholders and innovators like those attending the conference, we live “in a world where citizens are increasingly able to use new technology to both engage with, and keep tabs on, those in power.”

Conference attendee William Perrin of Indigo Trust previews the conference by discussing the creation of an “accountability stack” through open data. He argues that for “good governance enablers,” like parliament, judiciary, media and civil society, to be successful, basic information is required about each component. As this information accumulates, an accountability stack comes into existence. While clearly optimistic, Perrin believes that the greatest challenge to open data is to remain comprehensible—the so-called “geek stuff,” while essential, should remain in the background “and subservient to citizen needs.” One of the benefits of the Open Up! conference is that it not only highlights the theory and potential of open data, but also offers “clear, crisp examples…to demonstrate what this stuff is for.”

James Deane of BBC’s Media Action blog notes that Open Up! is indicative not of an entirely new phenomenon melding technology and good governance, but rather that line of thinking’s move to the spotlight. Advancing development through technology, he argues, “is no new discussion,” but, evidenced by open government initiatives, “this issue is moving at last from the periphery of development strategies toward the heart of it.” Just as technology aiding governance is not an entirely new idea, only one that seems to be gaining notable traction of late, Deane believes that open government can reach its potential with the help of “fairly large and traditional” organizations like his own BBC, not just young, small, disruptive innovators. Open data is for everybody after all.

On the DFID blog, Ian Attfield previews Open Up! in a post on open data projects in Tanzania. Again demonstrating how open data can help solve central problems in developing nations, Attfield discusses Twaweza (We Can!) a UK-funded initiative with projects focused on sharing data from learning outcome surveys and citizen response panels, to name only two. DARAJA, another Tanzanian venture, uses real-time open data “to learn from the challenges in tracking rural water pump planning and operation.”

The official Number 10 website publicized the conference, with a particular focus on the ability of technology and transparent government to help “improve the lives of the poorest.” Prime Minister David Cameron recorded a brief opening to the conference, in which he describes his “Golden Thread” approach. He argues that the types of technology and policies discussed at Open Up! can help fortify the conditions that make up the Golden Thread and “enable open economies and open societies” to thrive: the rule of law, the absence of conflict and corruption, the presence of property rights and strong institutions.

Many sites also took up the story of UK International Development Secretary Justine Greening’s new commitment to technology used for development, first outlined at Open Up! The plan includes MyWorld—“a mobile survey to allow at least two million in the poorest countries to have a direct say in the future of international aid through their mobile phones”—a new Open Aid Information Platform to trace government spending; a collaboration with the World Wide Web Foundation committed to closing the digital divide; Making All Voices Count, a collaboration between DFID, Omidyar Network, USAID and the Sweden Government “to spot innovative ideas and make them work”; and a mechanism allowing Pakistanis “to report poor performing or corrupt officials direct to senior Ministers through their mobile phones.” The Press Association calls Greening’s plan a way for the “Internet to inspire poorest nations.” Public Service lauds the newly outlined commitment, with an article titled “UK to help 6 million in developing world through mobile.” Finally, The Next Web writer Jamillah Knowles calls Greening’s initiative a “formidable tech to-do list.”

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