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Could Governments Run Out of Patience with Open Data?

by Andrea Di Maio  |  January 15, 2013  |  9 Comments

Yesterday I had yet another client conversation – this time with a mid-size municipality in the north of Europe – on the topic  of the economic value generated through open data. The problem we discussed is the same I highlighted in a post last year: nobody argues the potential long term value of open data but it may be difficult to maintain a momentum (and to spend time, money and management bandwidth) on something that will come to fruition in the more distant future, while more urgent problems need to be solved now, under growing budget constraints.

Faith is not enough, nor are the many examples that open data evangelists keep sharing to demonstrate value. Open data must help solve today’s problems too, in order to gain the credibility and the support required to realize future economic value.

While many agree that open data can contribute to shorter term goals, such as improving inter-agency transparency and data exchange or engaging citizens on solving concrete problems, making this happen in a more systematic way requires  a change of emphasis and a change of leadership.

Emphasis must be on directing efforts – be they idea collections, citizen-.developed dashboards or mobile apps – onto specific, concrete problems that government organizations need to solve. One might argue that this is not dissimilar from having citizens offer perspectives on how they see existing issues and related solutions. But there is an important difference: what usually happens is that citizens and other stakeholders are free to use whichever data they want to use. The required change is to entice them to help governments solve problems the way governments see them. In other terms, whereas citizens would clearly remain free to come up with whichever use of any open data they deem important, they should get incentives, awards, prizes only for those uses that meet clear government requirements. Citizens would be at the service of government rather than the other way around. For those who might be worried that this advocates for an unacceptable change of responsibility and that governments are at the service of citizens and not the other way around, what I mean is that citizens should help governments serve them.

Leadership for open data initiatives should move from people dealing with communication, civic engagement and the likes, to people who are responsible for government performances and budgets. In our Open Government Maturity Model (client privileges required) published a few years ago we said that a symptom of maturity for open government is when its responsibility stays with the Chief Financial Officer rather than the Chief Information Officer or Public Information Office. Open data must become a tool to address resource and service problems, before (or alongside) been seen as a tool for transparency and economic value creation.

It is quite remarkable how almost all my inquiries on this topic are with clients who have almost come to the same conclusion, but they are often worried to make this shift as they believe they would incur political opposition by those who are firm believers of the purity of letting citizen do whatever they like with open data. These two views are not antithetic, but it is clearly an area where open data pundits should stop banging the drum of long-term value and start rolling their sleeves to sell the shorter-term value from a government perspective.

Category: open-government-data  

Tags: government-20  

Thoughts on Could Governments Run Out of Patience with Open Data?

  1. Dear Andrea,
    I was not able to fill in a comment into your blog, so here a direct message.
    From my point of view the governments look in the area of Open Goverment and Open Data from the wrong perspective. They do not ask “How can I serve my country” but more “what is all about the youngest hype?”.

    I have compiled a (longer) blog article about open data using a scenario from the perspective of the citizens. In this case a moving family are their information needs to find a new location in a target city far away from their home. The economic impact for these million of families looking for a new residence, school, kindergarten may go in the hundreds of thousands Euros each, if the make a wrong decision with incomplete information. This is another dimension than the question, where the next public toilet is or how corrupt is my representative in parliament (which is also an important question).

    My question to You is: can You get the idea reading this German article from me or would it be easier to translate it to English, what I have already started but will not finish without feedback from the English speaking community. And my Italian is even more worse. For example: actually I read the dissertation of Umberto Eco (from Allessandrio, no living in Milano :-) about the Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinus. In English, because my Italian is even worse than my Latin :-)

    So as You like it, you may take a look here:

  2. Doug Hadden says:


    I had a bit of cognitive dissonance with the title of your entry: the notion that governments can lose patience.

    I attend numerous open government conferences and sessions primarily in Washington. [ ,

    I’ve tried to gather return to governments for open data (theoretical or actual: and moderated unconference sessions to specifically cover the criticism that open data proponents lack rigorous analysis:

    There are some emerging patterns:

    1) Open data may have as much value internal to government in the near term than external but there remains cultural constraints to sharing primarily because government organizations cannot conceive of how the information could be used by other departments
    2) Crisis data, anti-corruption and local government services seems to have the biggest pay back
    3) There seems to be far more of an opportunity of using open data to affect change in developing countries despite the digital divide – in particular, Ushahidi/elections and corruption, open budgets, government e-procurement. Developed countries have established transparency mechanisms, though imperfect.
    4) There is always a problem associated with using ROI measurements from previous generations. One missing metric for open data is the extent to Economic Value Add through avoiding disasters, planning commutes more efficiently, planting crops for effectiveness etc.
    5) The network effect/”government as platform” has not materialized except for some weak signals

    It’s true that the majority of open data case studies seem anecdotal at best. [But, it’s also true that the majority of government shared services case studies are about expected savings, rather than real savings.]

  3. Thanks for your comment Doug. On your point:
    1) I agree about the constraints, but here is the beauty of open data: departments open data for external stakeholders, and the use by other departments is almost incidental. This means that there is no need for inter-departmental agreements on data sharing, and this clearly helps.
    2) Agreed, crisis data rarely lead to sustainable use in other situation, the local giv ones always fall into the same categories (public transportation, potholes and the likes) and anti-corruption often overlap with government oversight (which is fine, but not enough)
    3)This is also true, but because in their cases the above (e.g. anti-corruption) has a more immediate impact
    4) I do not disagree, but as you can see few of these examples refer to internal government operations (e.g. reducing headcount, increasing productivity, etc)
    5) I have been saying for a long time that it was nothing else than a catchy phrase to support open data pundits

    As far as shared services, unfortunately expected rarely turn into real, or when it is about to happen the shared service dies or morphs into something else.

  4. […] While many agree that open data can contribute to shorter term goals, such as improving inter-agency transparency and data exchange or engaging citizens on solving concrete problems, making this happen in a more systematic way requires a change of emphasis and a change of leadership.  […]

  5. I’m sure you must have heard of Mike Flowers and what his team has done in NYC. IMHO, his DataGotham talk is required viewing for Open Data followers –

    Note that his team was able to get all their cross-agency insights that directly translated to REAL rather than anticipated saving because his team had access to good data.

    And that to me is key – if the data published by governments are heavily redacted and is of low resolution, you can only extract so much value from it.

    As for “citizens helping governments serve them”, perhaps, governments should explore process improvement engagement model whereby “citizen-sourceable” microproject requirements are published and a portion of the realized cost-savings are what’s used to incentivize/pay citizen hackers.

  6. […] Last Friday we published the new Gartner Open Government Maturity Model, which is available to our clients.It provides government CIOs and strategic planners with a framework to measure the maturity level of their organization’s capabilities to effectively and efficiently engage constituents and other stakeholders in transforming service delivery and operations.  […]

  7. […] Could Governments Run Out of Patience with Open Data? by Andrea Di Maio. […]

  8. […] Checking @AndreaDiMaio latest post "Could Gov Run Out of Patience with #OpenData ?" (provoker, as usual)  […]

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