Chapter 12: Proactive release and publication

Open government and open data542

A noticeable trend in freedom of information and open government internationally is the growing prominence of the open data movement: the concept of making data publicly available for use and re-use by the public in different forms and applications.543

If people put data on the web – government data, scientific data, community data, whatever it is – it will be used by other people to do wonderful things in ways they would never have imagined. The cry of ‘raw data now’ has spread around the world.

While in many ways this is a natural evolution of the principle of freedom of information, it is also a product of developments in technology, and particularly the internet. The Economist reports that there is a cultural change in what people expect from government, fuelled by the experience of shopping on the internet and having real-time access to financial information.544 Technology has also provided the opportunity to leverage the value of government information:545

“Government as platform” means exposing the core information that makes government function, information that is of tremendous economic value to society. Government information – patents, corporate filings, agriculture research, maps, weather, medical research – is the raw material of innovation, creating a wealth of business opportunities that drive our economy forward. Government information is a form of infrastructure, no less important to our modern life than our roads, electrical grid, or water systems.

The internet enables public sector information to be made available to a large audience, and members of the public increasingly expect to find a wide range of information on government websites. The digitisation of information raises new information-management challenges for agencies, but also creates new opportunities for public sector information to be used in innovative ways by people outside government. For example, a government agency generated dataset can be combined with data from another source in a “mash up” that shows the relationships between the two sets of data:546

We are only starting to understand the ways in which governments can leverage data to improve performance. But we know that the potential for using mashups, crowdsourcing, analytics and other techniques to transform data into meaningful knowledge – for average citizens, government managers, legislators, business owners and other stakeholders – is tremendous.

Another factor in the popularity of this new model is the impact of the Global Financial Crisis on economic conditions. Governments have recognised that public data released to the public for re-use can provide a useful resource and potentially boost economic performance through the contributions of small data handlers.547 As both central and local governments are forced to do more for less cost, these conditions incentivise greater participation and consultation between public agencies and citizens, the community, education and research, and the private sector. While there are agency costs associated with releasing data, research indicates that these are generally outweighed by the benefits:548

Different approaches to estimating the value of [public sector information] produce very different answers, but the common feature of these and many other studies is that the economic and social value can be high, often far outweighing the costs of collection and dissemination.

Proponents of open government also insist that providing more information can make government more efficient. The Economist reports that information disclosure can prove more effective and cheaper than traditional regulation, and may relieve pressure on government to provide services.549 For example, the development of applications and websites by the private sector and the community can help to meet citizen needs for information that otherwise might have been seen as the role of government to provide.

Transparency and opening up government data have become themes in public sector reform, driven by the goal of greater efficiency in the state sector, releasing the potential of data stores held within the state sector thereby creating economic opportunities, and enhancing the accountability of the state sector for service delivery.550 Open data is seen as contributing both towards transparency and accountability in government, as well as economic and service delivery transformation.

Rationalising the various factors at play is complex. The evolution of government information policy has been described as involving two main strands of thinking:551

One is that government should be more open; and this has given rise to freedom of information (FOI) regimes. This is about providing access to information. The other strand is that public sector information (PSI) can and should be re-used where benefits can accrue. FOI and PSI together are the fundamental building blocks of government in the Internet age.

Another article analyses the ambiguities of the term “open government data”, identifying two strands with different underlying purposes: the first relating to politically important or “accountable” disclosures (described as “(open government) data”), the second relating to politically neutral or unimportant but nevertheless useful disclosures (described as “open (government data)”), while accepting the potential for intersection between the two:552

This new ambiguity might be helpful: A government could commit to an open data program for economic reasons – creating, say, a new online clearinghouse for public contracting opportunities – only to discover that the same systems make it easier for observers to document and rectify corruption. In any case, there is much to like about economic opportunity, innovation, and efficiency, and a convenient label could be a good way of promoting them all. Also, the new breadth of “open government” creates a natural cognitive association between civic accountability and the Internet, which may be for the best. Transparency policies that embrace the Internet are often a great deal more effective than those that do not. (It might even make sense to say that if a government is not transparent through the Internet, it is effectively not transparent at all.)

There has also been some debate about the extent to which the open data agenda is dominated by corporate, economic or service oriented goals, and the extent to which open data can also serve the goals of democratic accountability, with consensus emerging that open data has the potential to serve a range of purposes:553

a good Open Data strategy should support Open Government goals, by making structured data that relates to accountability and ethics like spending data, contracts, staff salaries, elections, political contributions, program effectiveness…etc. available in machine- and human-readable formats.

Open government and open data have been at the heart of major policy initiatives in the United States,554 the United Kingdom and Australia. At an international level, the Open Government Partnership has been established, described as a sort of support group for countries willing to operate in a more open and participatory way.555 In New Zealand, Cabinet has released the Declaration on Open and Transparent Government, directing central public bodies to commit to releasing high value public data for re-use and inviting and encouraging other public bodies to do the same.556

For the conceptual origins of “open government” and “open data” and their convergence see Harlan Yu and David G Robinson “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’ ” (Princeton CITP/Yale ISP Working Paper, 28 February 2012) forthcoming in UCLA Law Review Discourse. See also Antti Halonen “Being Open About Data: Analysis of the UK Open Data Policies and Applicability of Open Data” (The Finnish Institute in London, 2012).

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, cited by United Kingdom Government in “Making Open Data Real: A Public Consultation” (August 2011) at 35.

The Economist “The Open Society: Governments are Letting in the Light” (25 February 2010).

Carl Malamud “By the People” (address to the Gov 2.0 Summit, Washington D.C., 10 September 2009) in Daniel Lathrop and Laurel Ruma (eds) Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency and Participation in Practice (O’Reilly Media, Inc., 2010) at 44.

Deloitte “Unlocking Government: How Data Transforms Democracy” (2011). See the discussion of the ways in which third parties can process and re-present government data in David Robinson, Harlan Yu, William P Zeller and Edward W Felten “Government Data and the Invisible Hand” (2009) 11 Yale JL & Tech 160, at 168–170. See also The Great New Zealand Remix and Mashup Competition <www.mixandmash.org.nz>.

The Economist “Of Government and Geeks” (4 February 2010).

John Houghton “Costs and Benefits of Data Provision: Report to the Australian National Data Service” (Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, Victoria University, Melbourne, September 2011) at 3. See also Chris Taggart “The Cost of Closed Data & the Economics of Open Data” (Open Knowledge Foundation Blog, 17 October 2011) <http://blog.okfn.org>.

The Economist, above n 544.

See Tom McLean “Not with a Bang but a Whimper: the Politics of Accountability and Open Data in the UK” (draft of 15 August 2011 prepared for the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting (Seattle, Washington, 1–4 September 2011); Halonen, above n 542, at 24–29; United Kingdom Government, above n 543, at 10.

Richard Susskind “Realising the Value of Public Information” (Publius Project, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, 17 April 2009).

Yu and Robinson, above n 542, at 19. See also Arturo Muente-Kunigami “Differences Between “(Open Government) Data” and “Open (Government Data)” (21 March 2012) <http://blogs.worldbank.org/ic4d/node/547>; David Tallan “Three Dimensions of Open Government” (30 April 2012) <www.govloop.com>; Emily Badger “In ‘Open Government Data,’ What’s Really Open?” (6 March 2012) <www.psmag.com>; Halonen, above n 542, at 9–10, 21.

Kevin Merritt “Reinventing Government with Open Data is No Joke” (accessed 8 May 2012) <www.socrata.com>. See also Tom Slee “Why the ‘Open Data Movement’ is a Joke” (1 May 2012) <http://whimsley.typepad.com>; Alex Howard “No Joke: Open Data Fuels Transparency, Civic Utility and Economic Activity” (2 May 2012) <http://gov20.govfresh.com>; David Eaves “Open Data Movement is a Joke?” (2 May 2012) <http://eaves.ca>; Tom Lee “Defending the Big Tent: Open Data, Inclusivity and Activism” (2 May 2012) Sunlight Foundation <http://sunlight.foundation.com>; Nat Torkington “Gov 2.0 as Means not End” (5 August 2010) <http://radar.o’reilly.com>.

See The White House “The Obama Administration’s Commitment to Open Government: A Status Report” (September 2011).

The partnership was launched in September 2011 and is led by steering committee of 8 countries: United States (co-chair), Brazil (co-chair), South Africa, United Kingdom, Norway, Mexico, Indonesia and the Philippines. Participating countries are required to put together action plans for open government and transparency. See Transparency and Accountability Initiative “Opening Government: A Guide to Best Practice in Transparency, Accountability and Civic Engagement Across the Public Sector” <www.transparency-initiative.org>.

Cabinet Minute of Decision (8 August 2011) CAB Min (11) 29/12, available at <www.ict.govt.nz>.