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Gauging the needs and challenges of the global open data community

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This is a guest blog post by Julia Keserü, International Policy Manager at the Sunlight Foundation, which partners alongside ao. the Open Knowledge Foundation in the Global Open Data Initiative. Originally featured on the blog of the initiative.

A few months back, the Global Open Data Initiative (GODI) sought input from the transparency community to learn more about the needs and challenges associated with open data. We wanted to know what definitions, guidelines and resources the community relies on, what is missing to improve the work of our fellow practitioners and how a global initiative might be helpful to boost reform.

Through a survey and a series of interviews, we gathered anecdotes, lessons and inspiration from about 80 individuals in 32 different countries with diverse professional backgrounds – research/education, business/consulting, advocacy. What follows is a summary of our most interesting findings. For more, take a look at the full report here.

Open data – standards, guides and definitions

Most interviewees agreed that the basic definition of open data is government proactively publishing data online. However, in many countries, data is frequently perceived as a product of civil society organizations’ efforts – through freedom of information requests or website scraping – rather than a timely and trustable resource provided by governments. Practical openness is also seen as being contingent on the usability of data to those who are seeking to create change with it.

Despite widespread agreement that standards are important, in practice, the interviewees did not seem to be overly focused on them. In some regions, such as Latin America, practitioners are often unaware that open data standards and guidelines existed, due in part to the limited availability of Spanish language resources. Many noted that the term open data is too dry and technical, which might impede evangelizing efforts.

The community

Global networks seem to play an extremely important role in sharing knowledge and learning from each others’ experiences. Many are eager for GODI to help connect the different strands of the open data movement and provide a place for people to come and find potential partners and collaborators. A few mentioned a need to connect those working on open data at the national level to the international conversation and spread the word beyond the existing transparency community.

Interacting with governments

As expected, knowledge of open data is typically isolated within relevant departments and branches of government. Opening up data for ensuring transparency and accountability is still too often met with resistance and suspicion. Several organizations and individuals noted that their ability to interact and engage with public officials diminishes notably when they are seeking politically sensitive datasets — like company registers, budgets, or campaign finance information. There was widespread agreement that achieving data disclosure policies required a combination of both legislative and persuasive tactics.

Challenges

Unsurprisingly, the challenges faced by the majority of people we heard from could be boiled down to politics, access to data, data quality, and engagement. Many faced political resistance from governments unwilling to release data in the first place and the lack of good freedom of information laws in many countries is still inhibiting the development of open data.

On top of these, there is a certain confusion around open data and big data, and the community is in desperate need of credible impact studies that can provide a strong theory of change. Some regions, such as the African continent, are historically known to be burdened by issues of poor infrastructure and connectivity – data needs to be presented in more innovative ways there.

Opportunities for the open data community

There was a general consensus that a better networked global open data community could improve the way organizations collaborate, find partners, and prevent duplicating efforts. Many agreed that a large civil society alliance could offer the clout necessary to push for national agendas around open government. It could also help the reform agenda by articulating an open data solution that fits into the domain of transparency and create a feedback loop for accountability.

And lastly: the open data community would benefit immensely from a more clearly defined evidence base and theory of change associated with open data. We need proof that open data can be valuable in a variety of country contexts and for a variety of reasons such as economic development, accountable government or more effective public sector management.

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