There’s a growing international movement afoot worldwide to open up government data and make something useful with it. Civic apps based upon open data are emerging that genuinely serve citizens in a beneficial ways that officials may have not been able to deliver, particularly without significant time or increased expense.
For every civic app, however, there’s a backstory that often involves a broad number of stakeholders. Governments have to commit to open up themselves but will in many cases need external expertise or even funding to do so. Citizens, industry and developers have to use the data, demonstrating that there’s not only demand but skill outside of government to put open data to work in the service of accountability, citizen utility and economic opportunity. Galvanizing the co-creation of civic services, policies or apps isn’t easy but the potential of the civic surplus attracted the attention of governments around the world.
The approach will not be a silver bullet to all of society’s ills, given high unemployment, economic uncertainty or high healthcare or energy costs — but an increasing number of states are standing up platforms and stimulating an app economy. Given the promise of leaner, smarter government that focuses upon providing open data to fuel economic activity, tough, results-oriented mayors like Rahm Emanuel and Mike Bloomberg are committing to opening Chicago and open government data in NYC.
A key ingredient in successful open government data initiatives is community. It’s not enough to simply release data and hope that venture capitalists and developers magically become aware of the opportunity to put it to work. Marketing open government data is what has brought federal CTO Aneesh Chopra and HHS CTO Todd Park repeatedly out to Silicon Valley, New York City and other business and tech hubs. The civic developer and startup community is participating in creating a new distributed ecosystem, from BuzzData to Socrata to new efforts like Max Ogden’s DataCouch.
As with other open source movements, people interested in open data are self-organizing and, in many cases, are using the unconference model to do so. Over the past decade, camps have sprung up all around the U.S. and, increasingly, internationally, from Asia to India to Europe Africa to South America. Whether they’re called techcamps, barcamps, citycamps or govcamps, these forums are giving advocates, activists, civic media, citizens and public officials to meet, exchange ideas, code and expertise.
Next week, the second International Open Government Data Camp will pull together all of those constituencies in Warsaw, Poland to talk about the future of open data. Attendees will be able to learn from plenary keynotes from open data leaders and tracks full of sessions with advocates, activists and technologists. Satellite events around OGD Camp will also offer unstructured time for people to meet, mix, connect and create. You can watch a short film about open government data from the Open Knowledge Foundation below:
To learn more about what attendees should expect, I conducted an email interview with Jonathan Gray, the community coordinator for the Open Knowledge Foundation. For more on specific details about the camp, consult the FAQ at OGDCamp.org. Gray offered more context on open government data at the Guardian this past week:
It’s been over five years since the Guardian launched its influential Free Our Data campaign. Nearly four years ago Rufus Pollock coined the phrase “Raw Data Now” which web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee later transformed into the slogan for a global movement. And that same year a group of 30 open government advocates met in Sebastopol, California and drafted a succinct text on open government data which has subsequently been echoed and encoded in official policy and legislative documents around the world.
In under half a decade, open data has found its way into digital policy packages and transparency initiatives all over the place – from city administrations in Berlin, Paris and New York, to the corridors of supranational institutions like the European Commission or the World Bank. In the past few years we’ve seen a veritable abundance of portals and principles, handbooks and hackdays, promises and prizes.
But despite this enthusiastic and energetic reception, open data has not been without its setbacks and there are still huge challenges ahead. Earlier this year there were reports that Data.gov will have its funding slashed. In the UK there are concerns that the ominously titled “Public Data Corporation” may mean that an increasing amount of data is locked down and sold to those who can afford to pay for it. And in most countries around the world most documents and datasets are still published with ambiguous or restrictive legal conditions, which inhibit reuse. Public sector spending cuts and austerity measures in many countries will make it harder for open data to rise up priority lists.
Participants at this year’s camp will swap notes on how to overcome some of these obstacles, as well as learning about how to set up and run an open data initiative (from the people behind data.gov and other national catalogues), how to get the legal and technical details right, how to engage with data users, how to run events, hackdays, competitions, and lots more.
What will this camp change?
We want to build a stronger international community of people interested in open data – so people can swap expertise, anecdotes and bits of code. In particular we want to get public servants talking to each other about how to set up an open data initiative, and to make sure that developers, journalists NGOs and others are included in the process.
What did the last camp change?
Many of the participants from the 2010 camp came away enthused with ideas, contacts and energy that has catalysed and informed the development of open data around the world. For example, groups of citizens booted up grassroots open data meetups in several places, public servants set up official initiatives on the back of advice and discussions from the camp, developers started local versions of projects they liked, and so on.
Why does this matter to the tech community?
Public data is a fertile soil out of which the next generation of digital services and applications will grow. It may take a while for technologies and processes to get there, but eventually we hope open data will be ubiquitous and routine.
Why does it matter to the art, design, music, business or nonprofit community?
Journalists need to be able to navigate public information sources, from official documents and transcripts to information on the environment or the economy. Rather than relying on press releases and policy reports, they should be able to have some grasp of the raw information sources upon which these things depend – so they can make up their own mind, and do their own analysis and evaluation. There’s a dedicated satellite event on data journalism at the camp, focusing on looking at where EU spending goes.
Similarly, NGOs, think tanks, and community groups should be able to utilise public data to improve their research, advocacy or outreach. Being more literate about data sources, and knowing how to use them in combination will existing free tools and services can be a very powerful way to put arguments into context, or to communicate issues they care about more effectively. This will be a big theme in this year’s camp.
Why does it matter to people who have never heard of open data?
Our lives are increasingly governed by data. Having basic literacy about how to use the information around is is important for all sorts of things, from dealing with major global problems to making everyday decisions. In response to things like climate change, the financial crisis, or disease outbreaks, governments must share information with each other and with the public, to respond effectively and to keep citizens informed. We depend on having up-to-date information to plan our journeys, locate public facilities close to see how our taxes are spent.
What are the outcomes that matter from such an event?
We are hoping to build consensus around a set of legal principles for open data so key stakeholders around the world come to a more explicit and formal agreement about under what terms open data should be published (as liberal as possible!). And we’ll be working on datacatalogs.org, which aims to be a comprehensive directory of open data catalogues from around the world curated for and by the open data community.
We also hope that some key open data projects will be ported and transplanted to different countries. Perhaps most importantly, we hope that (like last year) the discussions and workshops that take place will give a big boost to open data around the world, and people will continue to collaborate online after the camp.
How is OGD Camp going to be different from other events?
It looks like it will be the biggest open data event to date. We have representation from dozens and dozens of countries around the world. There will be a strong focus on getting things done. We’re really excited!