I read yesterday on Computerworld UK that
UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s special envoy on the UN’s post-2015 development goals has said that he is ‘disappointed’ by how much the government’s open datasets have been used so far.
I wonder how this can be a surprise. Despite the efforts of so many governments, advocacy groups, journalists and application developers, the use of open data remains abysmal, and certainly disproportionate to the hype surrounding it.
The article suggests that the problem is in the quantity, quality and accessibility of open data. But the reality is that the public at large does not care about open data. People care about better services and about knowing that their government is using their money wisely enough. They expect the press or political pundits to use data to inform them or to support a political position. From time to time there is an interesting and cool application springing out of open data contests, such “Where is my bus?” or “Where is the nearest toilet?” , but the overall number, the diversity and the long-term success of these applications is still very limited.
I was presenting on open data yesterday, and the CTO from a land registry organization challenged my skeptical view that governments should urgently find a more internal and direct use of open data to keep funding open data programs. He said that open data is for the sake of economic development and transparency, not for internal use.
I do not disagree of course. All I am saying, and I have been saying for a while now, is that to realize this vision will take quite some time. Indeed more data must be available, of higher quality and timeliness; more entrepreneurs or “appreneurs” must be lured to extract value for businesses and the public at large from this data; and we need a stream of examples across sectors and regions to show that value can be generated everywhere.
Today we do have the basic ingredients: government ministers like Francis Maude in the UK, or appointed executives like Todd Park in the US, the Open Government Partnership, a growing community of hacktivists and data journalists. But this is a recipe that requires long and slow cooking. The impatience transpiring in the envoy’s words, as well as the aggressive stance of minister Maude whipping the civil service to be better at anything open and digital, cannot do much to accelerate the process.
So my response to the CTO and to all those who deeply believe in the benefits of open data is that they have to set for a long run. This is a marathon, and not a sprint, so it is important to plan how to sustain the investment required through a number of years, knowing that new priorities and unplanned events may divert or reduce the investment.
One way to sail through this is to actively pursue value generated inside government, by building dashboards, by easing the data exchange across agencies or government tiers. While the ultimate benefits will be accrued by the public at large, it is a tactical imperative to connect open data initiatives to government performance improvement and cost containment and to show how it can directly contribute to each agency’s mission rather than to the general principles of transparency and external engagement.