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New Report Highlights Successes and Challenges of Worldwide Open Data Policies

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, October 31 2013

David Cameron addressing the OGP summit (10 Downing Street/Facebook)

A new study of 77 countries from the World Wide Web Foundation and Open Data Institute indicates that while 55 percent of countries have open data initiatives in place, less than 10 percent of key government datasets around the world are in fact easily accessible to the public.

Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, released the study Thursday in connection with a speech he gave at the Open Government Partnership annual summit in London, which techPresident is also live-blogging.

The new report's Open Barometer ranks the United Kingdom at the top when it comes to the policy, implementation and impact of open government data, followed by the United States, Sweden, New Zealand, Denmark and Norway. The barometer ranks Kenya as the most advanced developing country, and also sees it ahead of richer countries such as Ireland and Belgium in global comparisons.

"Governments and companies must not shy away from publishing contentious datasets if they contain information that could be used to dramatically improve people's lives," Berners Lee said in a statement. "The open data movement has made a promising start, but many Open Government Data initiatives are presently resting on shallow foundations, at risk of falling backwards if political will or pressure from campaigners subside.”

This report comes a few days after the Open Knowledge Foundation released its Open Data Index, which ranked 70 countries based on the availability and accessibility of data in ten categories. The United Kingdom also ranked first in that survey, followed by the United States, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands.

Gabe Trodd, communications adviser for the WWWF, emphasized that the two reports complement each other, with the barometer highlighting the policy implications of countries' open data approaches while the index is focused on the availability of certain kinds of datasets. According to Trodd, there are plans to collaborate in the future and cross-validate the assessments of both rankings.

The barometer released Thursday points out that "valuable but potentially controversial datasets," such as company registers and land registers, are often the least likely to be released. "It is unclear whether this stems from reluctance to drop lucrative access charges, or from a desire to keep a lid on politically sensitive information, or both."

The report also emphasizes that often the data governments do release is only available in inaccessible formats. Across the countries surveyed, the report found that the "availability of truly open data remains low, with less than 7 percent of the datasets surveyed in the Barometer published both in bulk machine-readable forms, and under open licenses. This makes it unnecessarily difficult for users to access, process and work with government data, and potential entrepreneurs face significant legal uncertainty over their rights to build." The report notes that in the area of public transport, an area with well-established data standards, "just 25 percent of countries surveyed have machine-readable data available. Mapping data is also often unavailable in digital forms, or only available for a fee, suggesting that inefficient charging for public data continues to be an issue in many countries."

The barometer highlights different challenges ahead and potential areas for improvement for the top-scoring countries as well as the lower ranking countries.

"The national OGD initiative has been sustained and extended across a change of government in 2010, and has received high-level backing from the Prime Minister," the report notes with regard to the top-scoring UK. "A strong emphasis has been placed on the potential of open data to support innovation and economic growth, including through the establishment of the Open Data Institute to support and catalyse business use of open data. To secure contributions to the portal from across government, each department was required to create a departmental open data strategy, including details of actions that could be taken to stimulate use of data, and progress against these strategies is regularly reported upon in written ministerial statements."

But the report also notes that the UK has been weak when it comes to the social impact from open data. "Although there are some experiments taking place to make community and local government data available to support policy discussions, recent government policy has particularly emphasised economic re-use of data, and requiring economically-centred ‘business cases’ to justify data release, rather than looking to support thematic communities of practice around data. Only limited examples of open data used as a tool for more open policy making exist," the report states.

Echoing the high-level government support for open data initiatives in the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke at the OGP on Thursday and announced plans to release more information about who owns and controls UK companies. He also emphasized his support for the OGP's goals on Twitter, participating in a Thunderclap campaign calling on world leaders to push for more open government policies.

Regarding the United States, the report highlights the White House's Open Government Directive issued in 2009, an initiative that is "currently backed by an executive order and policy memorandum that is focussed on machine- readable, standardised, clearly licensed, and well catalogued data. Government agencies are encouraged to identify and release ‘high value’ datasets, with an emphasis on economic value from data."

The report also notes that the U.S. scores high on data availability since copyright laws do not apply to federal data. "However, the recent ‘project open data’ created some controversy by proposing datasets should be ‘licensed’, which may create confusion about their public domain status."

In addition, the report highlights the U.S. emphasis on bringing innovators into government, such as through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the benefits gained from the "wide range of civil society organisations seeking to work with government data for transparency and accountability purposes."

The report points out that there has been a focus in building out the platform to create thematic spaces bringing together content, documentation and discussions on topics such as agriculture, health, energy, law and manufacturing. "However, recent experiences of the US Government Shutdown highlighted the weaknesses of a centralised data portal approach, when access to was turned off for two weeks – leaving anyone relying on Open Government Data without access to this essential resource."

In Africa, the report emphasized that limited Internet penetration significantly hampers open data readiness, as well as scarcity of training for entrepreneurs and civic technologists. The report suggests a necessity to explore " different approaches to making data accessible that do not rely on Internet penetration, such as through print media, community radio and mobile phones."

In Kenya, the report notes that an Open Government Data initiative launched with great attention in July 2011, but that the effort may have stalled in 2012 due to the difficulty of securing new and updated datasets from many government departments. The report also highlights a number of initiatives such as hack days, data journalism training, and the Code for Kenya incubator, which embedded data experts inside established news organisations. "These projects have often faced challenges getting relevant data from the portal, but have managed to access datasets through data scraping and interacting directly with ministries, suggesting that the idea of open data has acted as a catalyst for a range of activities, even if open datasets are not, in the end, the main input to those activities."

But the report also notes significant hurdles remain until the wider Kenyan public is able to benefit from and have awareness of open data offerings. "In a recent survey of Kenyan citizens, the Jesuit Hakamani Trust found that whilst there was significant demand from the population for government data, at most 14% of citizens were aware of, or had accessed, the national open data portal."

In contrast to Africa, the report notes that in the Middle East and Central Asia, there is generally significant technical capacity to support open data policies. "[But] limits on civil society freedoms, and the absence of strong Right to Information laws to back up civil society use of open data lead to much lower citizen and civil society readiness to secure benefits from open data," the report notes. "The presence of open government data portals in a number of countries with low civil society readiness (Kazakhstan, Bahrain) raises questions about open data policy transfer taking place at the elite level, with open data potentially developed largely as an ‘e-government’ project, rather than as part of broader based open government initiatives involving governments, private sector and civil society."

All the raw data for the Barometer study is available under an open license for members of the public to analyze, interpret and remix. The plan is to institute the Barometer research as a regular study. Researchers and reviewers can express their interest in assisting with the 2014 study here.

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An earlier version of this article, based on information provided by the World Wide Web Foundation, placed Kenya above Italy in global rankings due to a data error. Kenya is ranked above Ireland and Belgium in global rankings, but not Italy.