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Open government data in the UK, US and further afield: new report

We’re extremely proud that data.gov.uk – the UK Government’s open data portal – uses CKAN, OKF’s open source registry of open data. In the months in 2009 that led up to the release of data.gov.uk, OKF worked closely with the Cabinet Office to help them realise their vision of making public data publicly available in an open, reusable way. But our involvement with the UK government didn’t start there. Civil servants – particularly members of the Office for Public Sector Information – have been attending OKF events like OKCon since at least 2005. And we know that Sir Tim Berners Lee – who was brought on as an expert advisor to the Government as they worked up to the data.gov.uk project – was reading the OKF blog prior to his now famous “Raw Data Now!” talk at TED! ;-)

A new report released late last month charts the history of open government data in the UK and the US, and it’s a fascinating read. Written by OKF board member Becky Hogge for a consortium of grant-giving organisations including the Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Institute and DfID, the Open Data Study:

“…explores the feasibility of advocating for open government data catalogues in middle income and developing countries. Its aim is to identify the advocacy strategies used in the US and UK data.gov and data.gov.uk initiatives, with a view to building a set of criteria that predict the success of similar initiatives in other countries and provide a template strategy to opening government data.”

I was interviewed for the report, as were John Wonderlich from the Sunlight Foundation, Tom Steinberg from mySociety and Ory Okollah from Ushahidi. Other interviewees include experts like Ethan Zuckerman and Toby Mendel, and – of course – Sir Tim Berners Lee.

The report draws some new and surprising conclusions. As well as recognising the role of organisations like the OKF and mySociety in bringing about data.gov.uk, it emphasises how crucial engagement with civil servants was to the success of the open data project in the UK. It raises interesting questions about what motivates politicians to embrace open data strategies, and even posits that the long battle to open up geospatial data in the UK worked in a positive way: “the barrier [opening geospatial data] imposed in the UK may have served as a common call to action among both civil society and the middle layer government administrators, which in turn served to strengthen the crucial communication between these two groups in the trajectory towards data.gov.uk, and ultimately enrich the final proposition when compared to data.gov.”

The report contains mixed findings about the prospects of similar projects in developing and middle income countries, providing a useful and very detailed checklist for advocates working within those countries to consult, and pointing to the potential role of international donors in this context. In short, I’d recommend reading this report to anyone interested in open government data, or indeed, in advocacy generally. Because, as Becky notes in her blog post introducing the report:

“I’d be hard pressed to think of an idea that has permeated as quickly as open data has from the fringe to the centre.”

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