When open data first became a major area of discussion in governments, there were mixed feelings. On one end of the spectrum, developers were excited about the kinds of apps they could build using the data. On the other end, privacy campaigners were unsure about whether the release of such data would be secure. Citizens leaned either way — or had no real opinion about it at all.
There have been many success stories. Transport for London (TfL), for example, has provided free and easy access to timetables, service status and disruption information. It claims that more than 600 apps used by 42 per cent of Londoners are now being powered by its selection of over 80 open data feeds, which are available through a unified API. And this isn’t just having a positive effect on citizens’ lives — research commissioned by TfL and conducted by Deloitte estimates that providing this data adds up to £130m per year to London’s economy.
Other examples include the Albert Kahn Museum in the French area Hauts-de-Seine, which decided to publish an archive of over 60,000 photos of places around the world taken more than a century ago. The museum was able to use the data set API to build a new website to expose this open data in a user-friendly way, and this enabled it to increase the number of visitors to the museum’s site tenfold. Another example: The Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery (SCTS) has collated and published open data about heart surgery carried out in the United Kingdom since 2005, according to the National Health Service. This is estimated to have reduced the number of deaths in heart surgeries by up to 1,000 annually. It’s clear to see that opening up data can provide financial, business and health benefits.
More and more countries are now getting involved with new open data initiatives. In January, the Hong Kong government said it would open another 650 new datasets this year for the public to use without charge. In the United States, President Donald Trump signed the OPEN Government Data Act into law, requiring federal agencies, when possible, to make data and metadata public and available in a machine-readable format online.
Despite all this progress, there remains a sense that more can be done. But perhaps more worryingly, there is also a sense that in some countries, standards are slipping. Take the United Kingdom, for example: After the foundations of the UK open data infrastructure were laid in 2010, varying degrees of data quality and quantity have come from different departments.
The United Kingdom had topped the World Wide Web Foundation’s global rankings for public access to official data in 2016, but it has since slipped to second behind Canada. A November 2017 report by the European Commission further suggests that the United Kingdom’s reputation is starting to decline. The commission ranked the country ninth of the 28 it assessed, noting that it doesn’t have a predefined approach to keeping datasets up to date, and that the use of data in the country was declining. More worryingly, HM Treasury suggested that the current administration was questioning the ideal of universally free data, claiming that open data could impede security, privacy and profits.
In fairness, the government does have to think about steering the benefits of public data back to the general public, rather than to third parties. But without the resources to make this a reality — and with budgets continually dwindling — it makes more sense for third parties to gain access to some of this data. As with TfL, there are huge economic benefits that wouldn’t be realised if the government were left to its own devices.
The United Kingdom, the United States and every other government that wants to benefit from open data must ensure that they don’t have a strategy that just makes departments tick a checkbox. Instead, they need to constantly follow up on how departments are doing, introduce ways of measuring this, and implement programmes that initiate changes to improve the quality, governance and accessibility of data.