IDP2009: Access to Public Information

You are still warned: this is a liveblog, my impressions, not direct quotes, and presentations with excellent slides like these can be difficult to capture in full. Also using simultaneous translation for all speakers this time. Other summaries are collected at the idp2009 tag.

The first panel of the day is on the topic of ‘access to public information and social networking sites’, moderated by one of the chief organisers of the conference (and energetic liveblogger) Ismael Peña-López. In his opening remarks, he uses the very recent example of the Guardian’s project on MP expenses, with many users contributing to a valuable resource by viewing PDFs and highlighting important document, reproducing significant elements in plain text, etc. This is an illustration of how the important function of monitoring the democratic process is facilitated by low cost and high technology: the Internet allows us to acquire, transfer, discuss and use information. The link with social networking is to think about how we can use our new tools as part of the building of a better democratic culture.

The first speaker is José Manuel Alonso of both the CTIC Foundation and the WWW Consortium (W3C). You can read Alonso’s slides here (English), and I recommend that you do – they are full of useful links and references. In his introductory remarks, he refers to the ‘Government data and the invisible hand’ report, which suggests that Government ‘portals’ should disappear (being replaced by various forms of open data) – but Alonso doesn’t think this is going to happen immediately. He reviewed the experience with one-stop-shop portals to date, arguing that few use it with many other being a part the ‘Wikipedia effect’, especially in the US, of searching and going for a highly-placed link. The shift that is needed is from data ownership to data stewardship. On the common objection that this undermines financial models, there are examples of new approaches – the Austrian Mapping Agency made a dramatic reduction in its prices (97% reduction), meaning an increase of 7000% in downloads (Ordinance Survey please take note!). If you want to share/reuse data, you must (after Jeni Tennison) identify it, present it in a way that can be used, and then expose it to the world.

Some excellent examples are presented, including the way in which data is made available in a ‘data catalog‘(ue) by the city government in Washington DC, which is then reused (e.g. mapping at crimeindc.org and an iPhone safety application!) (the excerpts and screenshots are all in the slides, linked above). The same developers have worked on the new data.gov service of the US federal government, which is one of the ‘jewel in the crown’ thus far, though with some limitations. We also get a sneak preview of Mapumental (see this blog post for more), which uses public data to set out public transport time and average house prices – this is rather exciting. Ultimately we should hope to reach a ‘linked data cloud’, which there are good examples of so far, where you link data sets to other data sets.

He invites conference participants to send comments to the W3C’s Access to Government interest group, with further information available here. In that vein, he also draws our attention to the drafting of a declaration on Public Services 2.0, with information available here. These are both interesting projects, particularly in the light of a useful comment made by Alonso in his closing remarks about the need to collaborate and share across national borders as well as technological ones.

Alberto Ortiz (described by the moderator as the author of the best blog in Spain on e-government) also holds a non-partisan political appointment in relation to public data and citizen engagement in the Basque region, giving him a useful perspective on the challenges ahead. His cheeky subtitle on his opening slide is ‘yes, we want’. The challenge, if we look at 2033 (chosen for the resonance with Mariono José de Larra’s 1833 satirical article ‘Vuelva usted mañana’), is to end the ‘come back tomorrow’ phenomenon of public services. So what is the model that we are following to try and get there? The first four phases were information, one-way interaction, two-way interaction, transactions – the fifth is or will be personalisation. He presents some data on the availability of eGovernment services across Europe, ranging (on one analysis) from 100% to less than 20% availability, which does not match advances in technology or government more generally (the limitation is that most research is on availability rather than use or value). We have a show of hands on online tax returns, which shows again that the audience is a little ahead of the curve. Yet of course, no political party can win an election on a promise to digitise the administration.

There are three pillars of open government: citizen-centred services, designed with transparency and accountability, and the fostering of innovation. He discusses the differences between mere eGovernment and open government – what a difference an O makes! Open data government, then, is a specific part of OG: it’s a prerequisite of it and a basic building block for empowering citizens. He refers back to the DC and US federal examples discussed by Alonso. Another case is how the ministry for industry in Spain enables the use of information on the cost of fuel; a user thought the interface was very clunky (despite the good data) and designed a better one (here. I also liked the discussion of the peer to patent community patent review project.

Finally, Jordi Graells, who is the deputy director of content and innovation in the Catalan Citizen Service Office (and blogger), considers how the reuse of public information can change the workings of the administration. The hope is to change how we ‘add value’ – but organisations need to change, as is argued by Gary Hamel. Decisions are better if they do not depend on one person, and collective intelligence supports complex needs. There are, however, both stimuli and barriers to innovation. I was also glad to hear Graells’ discussion of Creative Commons licensing in this context (see also the recent UK decision on the licensing of public sector information). In Catalonia, it was mentioned at an early stage in official documents that CC licenses would be used: the first was a publication on the system of jails in June 2007! There remains a fight between creativity and bureaucracy in some contexts … and in many contexts, legislation prevents information being made available in an open fashion. Databases are an interesting case, because of sui generis database rights, although CC 3.0 waives that right. The current state of CC in Catalonia encompasses a wide range of documents as well as audiovisual materials. There is an ongoing need, though, to have people within administrations using a spirit of openness and cooperation with citizens and of course with each other.

In the question and answer session, we heard (from the floor and the panel):
- some scepticism about official government blogging and how ‘real’ it would be
- the ‘genetic’ desire for control, especially in public administrations, and how to challenge it
- Downing Street’s integration of various social media systems – why not elsewhere?
- the importance of small, targeted interventions that show how a new system works and makes others jealous!
- the appointment of Tim Berners-Lee to work on these issues in the UK
- possible objections from citizens on the grounds that the job of administration is to administer, and that money is wasted on access to data or ‘convenient’ services that few want
- will we have another divide between those online with and online without expertise, to replace the digital divide problem?
- can politicians ever give up their own power?

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