Monthly Archives: May 2010

Data dot (dot, dot): the story of open government data

The TAAI Open Data Study

Don't judge a book by its cover: the open data study

When, earlier this year, the Ordnance Survey announced it would open up (most of) its mapping data for remix and reuse, my first thought was to check the calendar. Sure enough, as with EMI’s announcement in 2007 that it would drop DRM, it was 1 April. But – also as with the EMI announcement – this was no April Fool. After years of campaigning by a grassroots of the digitally-savvy and dedicated, a major organisation had agreed to change its business practice. This was for real.

William Heath and I had already agreed over a rather delicious lunch at the October Gallery that someone needed to tell the story of how open data had proved – as a campaign issue at least – such a success. I’ve been following the rise of mySociety since I interviewed mySociety’s Tom Steinberg about what all this “civic hacking” was about in 2004, the year TheyWorkForYou launched (with, ahem, “borrowed” data). Obama’s “” portal of reusable federal data was released in 2009, and, the UK’s own (superior) open data portal, was publicly released this year. I’d be hard pressed to think of an idea that has permeated as quickly as open data has from the fringe to the centre. What did the open data people do so right?

Tim Berners Lee gets the audience chanting at TED 2009

I was delighted when the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (a consortium of funders and NGOs, including DfID, the Omidyar Network, Hewlett, Ford and OSI) approached me in April to answer just that question. Their motivation was to find out what the strategy was, and whether it could be repeated in middle income and developing countries. The result is this report, nattily titled Open Data Study (yes, the title sucks, all the ingenuity went into the text itself). I really enjoyed writing it (especially getting to interview Tim Berners-Lee over video phone) and I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

Not all of it is easy reading. Digging into the subject meant confronting quite a few of my own misconceptions of the open data story. Here are just a few of the points that surprised me:

  • This is not a story of the plucky grassroots winning out over all. “It has to start at the top, it has to start in the middle and it has to start at the bottom”, as Sir Tim puts it. Without a sleeper cell of dedicated and skilled civil servants who could see what open data was about and how it could help them, this project would never have gotten off the ground. And without a good political reason to open up government data, the project would never have soared to the heights it did.
  • You can’t just fly Sir Tim around Africa and expect him to leave a trail of glistening open data portals in his wake. There are capacity issues. Not everything is computerised. Sometimes, data sets we would regard as core don’t even exist on paper, let alone online. And pockets of corruption are sometimes so intense that releasing data openly could be a life or death thing. There’s good news too – multilateral and bilateral donors could play a strong role in getting data open, and they can start by leading by example.
  • The open data project was sold on its potential and not on its proven impact. I write “More often, it was the utility of applications (in contrast to the resources expended to produce them) and not their broad user bases, which seem to have inspired officials further up the line to engage with the open data agenda.” Of course, this is neither good nor bad: lots of things are sold on their potential, including the ID cards scheme (on second thoughts, maybe that was sold on fear), the NHS data spine…and probably some good things too.

As well as Sir Tim, the report contains interviews with the lovely Ory Okollah of Ushahidi, Jonathan Gray of the OKF, Tom Steinberg, Ethan Zuckerman, and many, many more. It’s already attracted comment from Glyn Moody, and Ory’s done a very kind write-up.

I hope you enjoy it, and do leave your thoughts in the comments.

Links for this week

Every week, I help compile a short mail out of interesting stories for the Open Society Institute’s Information Program, which aims to update their colleagues in the Soros network and friends further afield about the news, opinions and events the Program team have their eye on. Since the mailout is released Creative Commons, and usually contains a really excellent spectrum of information society issues, I’m going to start sharing the links on this blog. Here’s the first issue:

Why is there resistance to prize funds?
Prize funds are mechanisms for stimulating innovation. In healthcare, prize funds present an attractive alternative to patent-based mechanisms, and can be particularly useful in stimulating research around treatments for neglected diseases. Here, Jamie Love of Knowledge Ecology International tracks the history of prize funds, and examines why they still encounter such resistance from commercial organisations.

The death of fixed lines in Africa
Steve Song challenges the notion that Africa’s future communication infrastructure will be 100% mobile, and offers three reasons why fixed line communication should be viewed as a complementary technology with its own role to play.

The Partisan Internet and the Wider World
Is the internet making us ideologically isolated? Ethan Zuckerman dissects a recent study of how the internet affects our political views and associations, providing a good summary of the various arguments around this question so far, and raising some interesting questions about the most current research.

Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace
This new book from MIT Press, which features chapters from academics and practitioners associated with the Open Net Initiative, examines the state of privacy and free expression online, and the trends that got us here. Part II contains a series of informative regional profiles.

Deploying Ushahidi – Allocation of Time
Ushahidi community member Chris Blow shares his experiences of deploying Ushahidi, and reveals where Ushahidi-based projects most often fail.

Diasporas: A new sort of togetherness
This Economist feature posits that diasporas are being revived by social media.

The web’s first Cyrillic top level domain
This month, the first Cyrillic top level domain “.рф” (“.rf”) came online. This article examines take-up of the new domain, and questions whether this introduction of Cyrillic threatens the internet as a global and open space.

Facebook responds to privacy outcry
Facebook has announced a new simplified approach to user privacy, following growing concerns that the company was misusing personal data by making it harder to opt out of commercial data-sharing schemes. The new arrangement will provide users with a single page from which they can control all their privacy settings.

Tajikistan: President moves to ban cell-phones
President Rahmon of Tajikistan has “declared war” on mobile phones, citing dangers to health they are alleged to pose, and complaining that the revenues of Tajikistan’s burgeoning telecommunications sector are difficult to track. One source quoted in this report suspects that the revolution in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan might also have something to do with the move.

East African Community countries to register all SIM cards
The East Africa Communications Organisations (EACO) has agreed to register all mobile phone SIM cards across the region by June 2012. A representative from the Uganda Communications Commission said “The decision to register SIM cards was reached at for security purposes and for protection of our consumers,” claiming that registering SIM cards would stop anonymous, abusive phonecalls.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Claim “Iranian Cyber Army”
A spokesperson for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has claimed that the “Iranian Cyber Army”, a group of hackers implicated in attacks on Twitter, Baidu and reformist Iranian web targets, “looks to” the Revolutionary Guard for direction.