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Open Government for Dummies: Open Data

What is open government data and why it is necessary to achieve Open Government? We review the concept and best practices.

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By Laura Tamia Ortiz. Published: July 12, 2021

We are reviewing the main concepts related to Open Government. First, we have discussed what Open Government means and what is meant by transparency, participation, and accountability within this model. Here, we will go over an indispensable element: open data.

What is open data?

The Open Data Charter describes it as “digital data made available with the necessary technical and legal characteristics so that it can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone, anytime, anywhere.” They shouldn’t have restrictions on copyright, patents, or other control or ownership mechanisms. This type of data can be made available by both private and public entities. Thus, governments are critical because of the amount of data they collect in their activities and because, by law, most of their information must be public.

Twenty-four national governments and 61 subnational governments have ratified the Charter. It presents six principles that this type of data must comply with:

  1. Open By Default. It represents a fundamental shift in how government operates and how it interacts with citizens. At the moment we often have to ask officials for the specific information we want. Open by default turns this on its head and says that publication should be a presumption for all. Governments need to justify data kept closed, for example, for security or data protection reasons. To make this work, citizens must also feel confident that open data will not compromise their right to privacy.
  2. Timely and Comprehensive. Open data is only valuable if it’s still relevant. Getting information published quickly and comprehensively is central to its potential for success. As much as possible, governments should provide data in its original, unmodified form.
  3. Accessible and Usable. Ensuring that data is machine-readable and easy to find will make data go further. Portals are one way of achieving this. But it’s also important to think about the user experience of those accessing data, including the file formats that information is provided. In addition, data should be free of charge, under an open license, for example, those developed by Creative Commons.
  4. Comparable and Interoperable. Data has a multiplier effect. The more quality datasets you have access to, and the easier it is for them to talk to each other, the more potential value you can get from them. Commonly agreed data standards play a crucial role in making this happen.
  5. For Improved Governance & Citizen Engagement. Open data can let citizens (and others in government) better understand what officials and politicians are doing. This transparency can improve public services and help hold governments to account.
  6. For Inclusive Development and Innovation. Finally, open data can help spur inclusive economic development. For example, greater access to data can make farming more efficient, or it can be used to tackle climate change. Finally, we often think of open data as just about improving government performance, but there’s a whole universe out there of entrepreneurs making money off the back of open data.

Open data already has solid legal frameworks in many countries. For example, with the approval of Directive 2003/98/EC a standard frame of reference on reuse of public information was established by the European Parliament in the EU. It has led to multiple national regulations and created various open data portals in most EU member states. Moreover, it has been replicated in numerous parts of the world. Thus, open data has great potential benefits in how it can be used and the actors who can benefit from its availability and is an essential resource for countries’ social and economic activities.

Among the processes that occur within public administrations, or concerning them, that take advantage of open data are transparency and democratic control, improvement or creation of services, performance and impact measurement, civic participation, innovation, citizen empowerment, and generation of new knowledge.

Despite the above, many public entities encounter great difficulties in generating Open Data policies and implementing them effectively. When it comes to open data, there are significant gaps related to the quality of the information, its updating, interoperability, and, above all, huge differences between government entities or agencies within the same levels of government.

How are countries doing on data openness?

In 2016, the Open Data Barometer, produced by the World Wide Web Foundation, evaluated 115 countries, and some of the report’s findings were that: 9 out of 10 government datasets are not open; data is often incomplete and of low quality; the success or failure of open data initiatives depends largely on political will; few open data initiatives actively promote inclusion and equity and; the data needed to restore citizens' trust in institutions is not published. In its “Leaders Edition,” this same entity evaluated in 2018 the performance of 30 leading countries in the field that had committed to comply with the G20 Open Data for Anti-Corruption principles. It reported a significant improvement in the progress of public policies in most of these countries if compared to the 2016 edition. However, it showed some concern as still, less than 1 in 5 datasets are open; some of the early world leaders, such as the United Kingdom or the United States, have worsened their performance; governments continue to treat open data as isolated initiatives. Meanwhile, the OECD’s OUR Data Index assesses the main progress and challenges related to the design and implementation of open government data policies in 32 OECD member and partner countries. The latest report was published in 2019 and highlights that in the countries assessed. There has been an expansion of the open by default approach. However, challenges remain regarding sustainability and policy maturity, portals’ quality, data governance, and encouraging reuse by other actors.

How to publish quality data?

One of the fundamental points of open data is interoperability since it allows different data sets, regardless of who publishes them, when, and where, to work together and thus generate complex systems with data that communicate to develop better products and services. As early as 2006, Tim Berners-Lee proposed a scale to evaluate the level of openness of open data through a 5-star ranking:

  • 1 star - make your material available on the web under an open license.
  • 2 stars - make it available as structured data
  • 3 stars - make it available in a non-proprietary open format
  • 4 stars - use URIs to refer to elements within the data so that they can be referenced
  • 5 stars - link the data to other data to provide context

The Sunlight Foundation created a guide that identifies challenges that may arise in starting from scratch with Open Data public policies. It can be of great use for public servants and actors interested in data openness, based on three questions:

  • What data should be made public? The sections invite to review the regulatory framework and legislation of the country in which they intend to open data and articulate open data policies with existing regulations such as legislation on access to public information, participation, or accountability.
  • How to create public data? This question and the items that comprise it give indications on formats, online availability, data quality, licensing, and other issues that may arise when opening data.
  • How to implement an open data policy? It is related to how to generate enabling environments to carry out openness efficiently and sustainably, including, among others, the creation of an area responsible for oversight to provide quality data, generate partnerships and ensure funding.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has also created a guide, the Open Data Handbook, to help data producers to open data effectively, which goes a step further and, in addition to the above, proposes actions to publicize the data once it is opened.

Who uses open data?

We do, and you should too. Open data is an essential resource for citizens and governments themselves and for companies, media, and organizations whose business model is based on showing the information in an understandable way to any citizen and offering the tools to do the same. You can explore our apps and dashboards here.

A good practice: France’s Etalab.

Etalab is an open data working group created in the French Prime Minister’s office. It is in charge of promoting open data among ministries and assisting them in their data publication process. It has defined a list of datasets with a high impact on economic and social life, prioritized for publication as open data. If you want to know more about this initiative, you can visit all the platforms promoted by this group at:


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