What is open government data?
Open Government Data (OGD) is not just about openness and transparency, nor is it just about data. At its core, OGD is part of a broader movement. It is something that places importance on, and values, the idea that governments should be proactively transparent and accountable, rather than reactive.
So, what then is OGD, exactly? According to an expert-compiled list of eight common open government data principles, government data can be considered open if it is complete, primary, timely, accessible, machine processable, non-discriminatory, non-proprietary, and license-free.
To provide a more succinct definition of OGD, it could be said that it is “data that is created and provided by a government, offered with a reusable license, that is human readable, machine understandable, and released without discrimination or cost to the public.”
A similar term to OGD is public data. However, they are not the same, and recent research has differentiated these topics according to three main criteria: “Public data does not necessarily need to be made easily available to the public; it does not have to come in a machine-readable form; and [it] does not need to be licensed for reuse.” In other words, “all open government data is public data, but not all public data is open government data.”
While there is no requirement for how OGD is made available, increasingly, OGD is being provided by “open government data portals,” which are either government- or community -run. OGD portals allow any person to: view and use a number of OGD datasets, access metadata about these datasets, and, often, access applications and services that are built using OGD.
Most OGD portals (for example, see: the portals of Canada or the USA) rely on an open source technology known as “CKAN” (Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network). CKAN facilitates access to OGD by provides data owners and data providers an easy-to-use framework for managing and releasing data as OGD.
How has the open government data movement developed?
OGD traces back to the open-source software movement and the “open-source definition,” which originated in the late 90s and early 2000s. This movement was formed around the idea that software code should be widely accessible and reusable.
In a similar spirit, in 2004, the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) was created. Like the open-source software movement, the OKFN also valued transparency and accessibility, except, instead of code, it advocated broadly for open knowledge. Two years later, in 2006, the OKFN released the first version of what it called the “Open Definition,” which clearly defined what “open” actually meant for knowledge, and specified how “data” was a subset of knowledge.
A landmark development occurred in the following year, 2007, when 30 experts on openness and advocates for open government gathered in Sebastopol, California to articulate and define the concept of OGD; this resulted in the creation of the eight common principles mentioned at the start of this explainer.
The biggest popularizer of OGD, however, was United States President Barack Obama. In 2009, the president issued an executive order related to open government and OGD. The order, from January 21, titled “Transparency and Open Government,” declared that openness would be the new norm for government. On December 9 of that same year, a further government directive was issued stipulating preliminary OGD requirements and institutionalizing OGD developments by requiring agencies to publish government information online, improve the quality of government information, and create and institutionalize a culture of open government.
Since then, governments and communities around the world have begun implementing their own OGD programs and portals. A number of international organizations have taken a special interest in the topic, for example the Open Government Partnership and the OECD.
The strong value of openness and transparency, once a fad among hackers and software developers, has now evolved into a global movement that acknowledges the importance and value of OGD.
What are the benefits of open government data?
OGD creates a large number of important benefits. One of the clearest benefits is that it puts the data user in the driver’s seat. With OGD, there is no longer a need to wait for a government to release a statistical report or to process a data request to answer a question. Instead, any person who has a question can proceed directly to OGD sources and find the answers him or herself. There are also clear benefits for accountability and transparency. OGD has been used to help uncover government fraud and corruption, hold public officials accountable, and enable non-governmental oversight of core governmental functions.
OGD also has clear economic benefits. It encourages innovation and enables the creation of new services, businesses, and business models. With OGD, anyone is able to “co-create” new OGD-driven public services. For example, during the Coronavirus crisis, many volunteers flocked to OGD to fight the pandemic. OGD was used as a source by citizens, academics, businesses, and governments alike to build data-visualization dashboards. The rapid sharing of OGD also helped to provide a clear overview of the global spread of the pandemic.
For governments, OGD can be used to not only increase their transparency to the public, but also to gain a better understanding of their own data sources and asses their quality. Governments have often used OGD in their own agencies to improve how services are provided. Additionally, governments may also be able to improve their own data management by releasing OGD, as it allows any interested stakeholder to find potential weaknesses and suggest improvements.
OGD is also an attraction to the private sector, one of its major users, as it is a resource that they companies not need to develop, pay for, or gather and maintain on their own. A broad category of private sector companies that use OGD is those that use geospatial datasets, such as: satellite imagery, address data, or geographical maps. One of the clearest examples of such private-sector OGD usage is Google Maps. Public transport data is provided directly to Google as OGD, which then takes this data to improve their service offerings.
What does the future look like?
The OGD movement is still in its very early stages, less than two decades old, and is likely to continue to grow. We are likely to see increasing citizen demands for government openness and transparency; the release of OGD will certainly play a part in such demands.
Furthermore, there is clear interest among many nations to begin to require certain datasets to be released as OGD. This can be seen clearly from the European Union’s recent focus on “high-value” datasets in the directive on “open data and the re-use of public sector information”. As data becomes increasingly open, and ecosystems develop around such data, society can expect to see an increasing number of applications, services, and businesses developing that rely on and utilize OGD.
While many OGD portals have been maintained and released at the highest level of government, cities around the world are also beginning to create and maintain their own OGD programs. Due to the increasing popularity of smart cities and smart technology, both of which generate a large amount of data, it would not be surprising to see cities start to play an increasingly important role in the OGD movement, especially due to the fact that data from local areas is of higher value to users in many cases.
Looking towards the future, OGD is almost certainly here to stay and to play a role in shaping our society. It is, therefore, paramount that governments and governing organizations start paying attention to this phenomenon and draft regulation and governance measures to take full advantage of the potential benefits.
Due to the increasing popularity of OGD, there are a number of different resources where one is able to find more information. Below is a list of nine resources of varying length and depth that provide a sound overview of the topic.
 This definition originates from the author’s doctoral thesis titled “Open Government Data Co-Created Public Services” and is available from: https://digikogu.taltech.ee/et/Item/e75082ae-9115-48c0-9526-09466e8a6698.
This explainer is published in the framework of the European-Israeli Forum for Technology and Society, a joint initiative by the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv.
The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and/or the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Tel Aviv.
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