• May 30, 2019
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What have we learned from ten years of open data?

Opinion: A movement was born — now it needs to grow

This abbreviated excerpt is taken from the new book State of Open Data, which was published 27 May by the International Development Research Centre and African Minds. The book is a collaborative project involving more than 65 authors from over 20 countries. See the website for a full list of contributing authors.

A decade ago, open data was more or less just an idea, emerging as a rough point of consensus for action among pro-democracy practitioners, internet entrepreneurs, open source advocates, civic technology developers, and open knowledge campaigners.

Calls for “open data now” offered a powerful critique of the way in which governments and other institutions were hoarding valuable data paid for by taxpayers – data that if made accessible, could be reused in a myriad of different ways to bring social and economic benefits and democratic change.

Ten years on, open data is much more than just an idea. First, it was a movement, and then a label applied to vast quantities of data from genomics and geospatial data to land registers, contracting, and parliamentary voting. Today, it’s a term found on government portals, in global policy documents, and in job descriptions.

Thousands of businesses around the world owe their existence or their growth to the release of open government data, and hundreds of civil society organisations have embraced open data as a key element of their social change toolkit.

For a while, it may have been possible to identify a cohesive open data movement united by shared interests, working simply to gain access to more data and establishing the principle that government data should be open. However, as the movement has evolved, stakeholders have turned their focus to linking data use to specific needs and to questions of how to quantify the return on investment in advancing open data. Within this fast-growing and organic open data movement, an ever-increasing number of networks and communities of practice have become more diverse, fluid, and cross-sectoral.

So what is the open data movement today? What has it achieved over the last decade? Answering these questions is at the core of this publication. It is a collective effort to explore what we can learn from the past, to identify how to build on the investments made to date, and to look at how open data policy and practice have started to address challenges such as mainstreaming and sectorisation.

Exploring these questions is not just important for historical purposes. It can yield important insights on how best to move forward. This publication is also an invitation to identify the issues that may sustain this broad coalition into the future. We believe that a deep reflection about the movement, even a reflection on whatever cracks have appeared or on the gaps between promise and reality, provides a vital opportunity to discuss where realignment and rethinking are needed.

This collection of essays is the product of an 18-month journey that has brought together almost 70 authors, supported by over 200 other contributors, to produce 37 short chapters on the current state of open data from a range of different perspectives, offering the most comprehensive attempt to explore the breadth and depth of the open data field to date.

Histories and horizons

Ten years may seem like a short period of time, but, when technology is involved, it constitutes a generational age. Institutional memories are curiously short, and in the cultural context of open data where amateurs are often welcome and professional barriers to entry are low, it is easy for work to proceed with little awareness of the past. This last decade has seen many succeeding phases of activity, so we have encouraged our authors to take a comparatively long view (when set against other contemporary writing on open data) to document the past in order to lay stronger foundations for future research and action.

We have also sought to understand open data as a global movement. Although some accounts have a tendency to focus on the North American or European roots of open data, tracing histories back to the launch of data.gov under Barack Obama’s presidency, open data practice has been shaped by interventions from across the globe. To gain a vantage point on open data as a global movement, this collection draws upon the editors’ engagement with the Open Data for Development (OD4D) network which has been closely engaged in regional networks in the Global South and involved in a range of global initiatives, including the Open Data Barometer (ODB), the Open Data Charter, the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Open Data Working Group, the Impact Map, and the Open Data Leaders Network.

Since 2015, OD4D has also been the permanent co-host of the International Open Data Conference (IODC), and the editors of this volume have been involved in preparing conference reports, including shared roadmaps for action, for the third, fourth, and fifth IODC meetings. We have seen how, over its five editions, IODC has shifted from a focus on open data, in and of itself, toward discussions that are thematic, sectoral, regional, and issue oriented, fostering critical debates on open data. The conference tracks and sessions at IODC have ultimately provided many of the chapter titles in this book, reflecting the many sub-communities of the open data field that have emerged. The debates at IODC over the last nine years also provide a useful proxy for debates across the wider field of open data, so a survey of the IODC conferences offers us one route to explore, in broad strokes, a history of how the focus of the open data movement has evolved.

The evolution of a movement

The first International Open Data Conference (IODC) was hosted by the United States Department of Commerce and took place in November 2010 in Washington, DC. At the same time, in London, a civil-society led conference, the Open Government Data Camp, was taking place. These parallel events captured the growing excitement about open data from both governments and civil society and marked the end of a year in which open data had moved from idea to initiative and from inception to the earliest stages of institutionalisation.

Over time, the boundaries between government and civil society networks have become more fluid with both positive and negative effects. The focus of these early events was on showcasing the platforms that had been built and discussing the potential for open data across sectors. However, even at this early stage, questions were being asked about how the impact of open data might be tracked, and whether bold claims being made on the transformative potential of open data could actually be realised.

By the time of the second IODC, hosted by the World Bank in July 2012, the question of how to measure emerging impact was firmly on the agenda. At this point, open data was being discussed in the context of international development and the movement had broadened to include a number of open data leaders from developing countries. Yet, while many of the projects profiled were still platform-focused, it was becoming clear that simply releasing data was not enough and that the quality of data available was far from perfect.

Early discussions turned to whether the potential returns of open data had been overstated and how to deal with the growing gap between rhetoric and reality. That early sense of an impact gap still pervades many of the chapters in this collection with several authors exploring the various reasons that could explain less than promised progress on transformative use. However, we note that the perception of an impact gap is rarely reflected by a similar level of difficulty in sourcing case studies of open data use, raising questions about the perception and the reality of progress on open data, as well as the influence of early conceptual models for open data impact on current critical practice.

By the time of the third IODC in Ottawa in May 2015, the focus had moved to an examination of how open data ideas and practices were developing in different sectors and regions. The conference captured a period of dramatic regional and sectoral growth of open data activity with increasingly diverse representation from across the globe. There was growing recognition that opening data alone was not enough to create impact. Instead, as many of the chapters in this collection explore, to secure outcomes from open data, clear goals need to be established and a series of strategic interventions identified. Policy design, intermediaries, and capacity building were all on the agenda. As more stories of open data in use to solve specific problems were shared, there was a growing recognition that impacts secured in one context or sector may not automatically translate to another. And with this recognition came an understanding that, rather than a single open data movement, there may be many overlapping, interwoven movements, drawing on particular elements of open data to address many different agendas.

The third IODC also made explicit the potential links between open data and sustainable development, highlighting that open data was no longer the only data game in town. Instead, in the context of international development, open data now had to find its place alongside renewed efforts to build the capacity of long-established statistical agencies, as well as newer initiatives seeking to tap into the potential of big data from proprietary private sector providers.

The fourth IODC, held in Madrid in October 2016, was framed in terms of “Global Goals, Local Impact”, reflecting increased consolidation of global advocacy and a continued focus on shared global principles, which was evolving in parallel with the growth of subnational and thematic initiatives.

Although the open data agenda had matured and become well-established as part of global policy-making, discussions explored concerns that it risked becoming a niche issue, destined to be the focus of only a small group of the “usual suspects”. Issues of privacy, gender equity, diversity, inclusion, and Indigenous data rights, all competed for space on the agenda, along with a new space for more critical discussion of how open data impact might be realised and the potential for more nuanced approaches to open data practice.

These critical threads continued into the fifth IODC that was held in Buenos Aires in September 2018.7 New on the agenda were discussions related to artificial intelligence (AI), and the conference saw a stronger focus on data standards and open data infrastructure. Although these later issues have long been discussed by a small but dedicated element of the open data community, there was increased recognition that they are not just technical issues. They also involve questions of data governance with political choices embedded in the use of data standards and structures, having substantial consequences for who can use and benefit from data.

In 2018, for the first time, the IODC agenda also featured a session on “Open Data Under Threat”, capturing a sense that continued progress was by no means assured. Against the backdrop of a deepening crisis of diminishing government support for openness around the world and much more public debate around the positive and negative potential of technology, concerns voiced over open data were no longer solely about a perceived impact gap. They also involved a deeper questioning of when and where openness can be safely practised and whether open data should be a priority for donors, advocates, and activists in the future.

A look at the 2018 IODC agenda also illustrates sectoral and regional sessions going deeper into the specific concerns of their fields and localities. In this, we find a reflection of the increasing diffusion of open data ideas, representing both a marker of success but also a potential risk to any future coherence of open data activity. In putting together this collection, while drawing on the Open Data for Development (OD4D) network and IODC as a starting point, we have been conscious of the need to move beyond to capture wider activity on open data and to explore how an early open data movement has now become many overlapping movements. By working with a diverse community of authors, encouraging them to draw on both published literature and their own domain-based networks, as well as on wider online outreach to the community, we have looked to capture insights into the open data world from far beyond the core IODC community.

Taking stock

Culture and temperament inevitably shape any qualitative review of progress. As with any invested community, a substantial number of people and organisations engaged with open data have a tendency toward critique. For many, the idea that data should be open was ultimately born out of a critical opposition to the way governments were handling data and an ambitious imagining of an alternative future in which access and capacity to gain benefit from data is more evenly distributed. Coupled with the differences in pace between rapid technological change and comparatively glacial governmental reform, this critical approach combined with well-meaning ambition can lead to the progress of the last decade being underplayed. Challenges on the horizon ahead can too often serve to mask the steps that have been taken in order for those challenges to become visible. (…)

So why is the current period for open data one of re-evaluation, rather than of celebrating progress.

Put simply, the adoption of open data as part of the global development toolbox has opened it (rightly) to substantial scrutiny. How quickly are efforts to open up data leading to change? What is the return on investment from open data-related reforms? What are the factors that shape whether or not open data leads to impact? And finally, how does work on open data interact or integrate with other core issues of sustainable development, such as gender equity, Indigenous rights, and good governance? Questions such as these have received increasingly detailed attention over the last few years. Although hardly any of these questions have simple answers, by looking at both progress and challenges, this volume seeks to bring together evidence, examples, and analysis that can support efforts to address them more clearly than before.

This is book excerpt was taken from the new book, State of Open Data which has been published 27 May by IDRC and African Minds. The book is freely available online and can be accessed through the link here.



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