Being Open About Data

The Finnish Institute in London has recently completed a five-month research project on the British open data policies. The report looks at how the open data ecosystem has emerged in the UK and what lessons can be drawn from the British experiences. The year 2012 will be a big year for open data in Finland, and this report also partly aims at further facilitating the development of open knowledge in Finland.
In short, the key arguments that the research makes can be listed as follows:

  • The key to securing the benefits of open data is the quality of user engagement
  • Open data and its objectives should be addressed as a part of the freedom-of-information continuum
  • The decision to emphasise the release of expenditure data was not ideal: governments do not know best what kind of data people want to have and should aim at releasing it all
  • Leadership, trust and IT knowledge are crucial, not only for political leadership but within organisations too
  • The social and democratic impacts of open data are still unclear and in future there is a need for sector-specific research

After a series of interviews and analysis of government documents it became evident that open data is not as apolitical an initiative as many may assume it to be. There is a long history of politicised debate on transparency and public spending behind the initiative. Open data is argued to be a good example of a targeted transparency policy, where proactive release of information is hoped to help in achieving certain political goals. The decision about which information should be released first is after all a political process.

In addition, we must realise the difference between transparency and democracy-oriented goals that are usually associated with the freedom-of-information movement and the technology and innovation-oriented goals of the open-data movement. In the end of the day, the overall value of transparency is not something that should be measured primarily in financial profits.

After a survey of all English local councils and a series of interviews, it seems that public sector data providers are supportive towards the idea of data transparency itself, but very cautious towards the means of achieving it, especially the initiative of releasing the data of expenditure over £500 in local government. Many of the respondents feel that the data released lack information value and due to that the general interest towards data has been minimal.

Open data is applied in various ways with lots of small-scale success stories available, mostly in the form of mobile-phone or web applications. These services make everyday life of citizens a tiny bit easier, and when accumulated they may result in significant economic benefits. However, the open-data community has also been vocal about the potential positive impacts on democracy. These impacts are significantly harder to identify and need much more research in order to produce comprehensive and reliable results.

The report argues that the applicability of data is effectively linked to the initial objectives of open data. The value of open data is built on an uncertain variable and on how people use it – it is difficult to form a single “one size fits all” model, to measure the value of applicability. Data has value only in its use, and at this time it seems that the best way to facilitate its use is to further engage those organised civil society groups who have resources and will to use data with real public-service interests in mind.

Economic impacts can be measured relatively easily with the current methods, but the possible changes in our society due to digitisation of the core infrastructures and the abilities of citizens to manage their lives within it pose challenges for the legitimate and democratic transparency regime. In the future, it is more important to focus on the normative side of open data and on its potential impacts on democracy. There is a risk of creating a hollow mantra of open data improving the level of democracy without any evidence provided. However, the potential for great improvement in democratic accountability is there.

Truly democratic transparency requires more than just the release of open data. It needs citizens who can see that their interests are treated equally in society. If it is hoped that open data will provide the catalyst for this, then the thresholds for access, use and interpretation of data need to be as low as possible. In order to achieve this, the data producers must possess a certain level of ICT knowledge to implement the system so that it is both simple enough to use and sophisticated enough to be able to manage information flow comprehensively – knowledge which is often lacking. This should not be an excuse not to release data, however, but a wake-up call for both data providers and the open-data community alike.

The final report “Being Open About Data – analysis of the UK open data policies and applicability of data” can be read and downloaded here.

Antti Halonen is a PhD candidate at University of Helsinki and a Fellow at the Finnish Institute in London. He is the author of “Being Open About Data – Analysis of the UK open data policies and applicability of open data”.

To Be Or Not To Be: Will FOI be Extended?

Should the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) be extended to include private bodies doing public work? The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) argued it should in a recent report on PFI projects:

Transparency on the full costs and benefits of PFI projects to both the public and private sectors has been obscured… commercial confidentiality should not restrict the ability of the public, Parliament and decision makers to access information. Freedom of information should be extended to private companies providing public services.

This is not the first time the PAC has called for private companies to be subject to FOI. In July it recommended that Network Rail, currently outside of FOI, should be covered. Nor are they alone. The Local Public Data Panel, a group of experts overseeing transparency and Open Data reformed across local government, warned of an erosion of public access due to the contracting out of services: Public rights of access to information should not disappear as a result of increasingly porous boundaries between public and private bodies delivering services.’

Extending coverage to private companies running public services, such as rail or road providers, is on the face of it logical and popular.  However, the devil lies in the detail and in the persuading of companies to do it, particularly now. But, while politicians prevaricate, some information is creeping out by the back door.

Most laws cover only information held by authorities, which can include some information held about work done by private bodies. Many companies are happy to provide information but not all, as our research on FOI and local government shows. Yet, willing or not, FOI only reaches so far and large ‘gaps’ in transparency appear with, for example, public prisons covered by FOI laws but private prisons not. Big society reforms and more contracting out of public services raises the possibility that these gaps will widen further.

Only one FOI law in the world currently wholly covers private bodies, South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000, though it’s not clear if or how it works. The Indian Right to Information Act 2005 also extends to previously public utility bodies now in private hands, though this was due to a ruling by its appeal body rather than by government action.

In the UK, Gordon Brown was the first to suggest extension of FOI to private providers in 2007. After several years of consideration it was decided to cautiously extend it to only a limited number of bodies. In 2010, the issue of extension surfaced again when new Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg aired the possibility that FOI could cover a wide variety of new bodies from Network Rail to utility companies. The Conservatives had also pressured the previous government to cover the nationalised bank Northern Rock.

Meanwhile, over the border in Scotland, the Scottish government began to consult on its own extension to selection of private bodies under its separate FOI Act. Again, following a long process, the final decision was to not do so.

Why have so few governments tried to extend coverage? As theUKand Scottish experience shows, even discussing extension can be a time consuming business, requiring a great deal of consultation and consideration.

More importantly, the arguments against extending FOI can be persuasive ones. Businesses argue that they can’t afford it (‘it’s too expensive’) and don’t need to (‘it’s unnecessary as we publish most of this already’). Here is the list of reasons for not extending FOI cited by the Scottish government, which would probably be enough to give even the most pro-openness politician pause for thought:

‘No compelling evidence of a problem or of unmet demand for information.

Wide concern about the potential resource implications and administrative burden of extension – particularly in the current economic climate

Most contracts stipulate co-operation between contractor and authority regarding information requests. Extension to contractors could be deemed to be a ‘discriminatory change in law’ – with costs passed to the public sector

Potential issues arising from differing regimes operating within theUK– including competitive disadvantage

Concerns that coverage would impact on private business engaging with the public sector and that resulting costs would be passed on to public authorities

That extension would be contrary to Scottish Government’s aim of reducing unnecessary regulation’

Interestingly, other developments and innovations may mean some level of transparency, through FOI and now Open Data reforms, may slowly ‘creep up’ on private companies. In Ireland, for example, it was recently decided that the Ango-Irish bank could be subject to Environmental Information Regulation requests (an equivalent FOI for environmental matters). In the UK the Ministry of Defence has begun ‘naming and shaming’ apparently poorly performing contractors. At local government level, one high profile joint venture between IBM and a set of public bodies has explicitly committed itself to FOI and many authorities are determined to make FOI access part of future contracts. In parallel, sites such as Openly Local allow the public to find out more about, for example, councils and their suppliers.

This ‘creep’ is no replacement for full FOI coverage but the whole issue of extension leaves politicians in a dilemma. They wish to hand the public more power to hold public services to account but are reluctant to upset business or add any regulatory burden, especially now. Will the onward move of transparency and Open Data leave them with no choice?

Academics FOI’led?

One thing that becomes more clear about FOI (and Open Data) as it settles into British society is to expect the unexpected (which, helpfully, gives us lots to study, and in turn, we hope our research helps). In all honesty, would anyone have predicted a ‘zombie’ parade on the streets of Leicester after an FOI request to the local council?

One new development with FOI is a small but growing collection of case law about FOI and universities, which is challenging some basic notions about what academic publishing is and how intellectual property works. Peer review is how academic work is challenged and critiqued, right? Except now, access to data is now a right for anyone. A ‘staggering injustice’ is one academic’s take on a decision by the Information Commissioner regarding his intellectual property. What’s also becoming clearer is some of the premises about FOI – what’s it for, who’s meant to benefit – are being challenged by what’s happening with universities:

  • FOI is about the helping little the guy: except when Tobacco giant Philip Morris uses FOI to get hold of information regarding teenage smokers.

What seems to be happening is a clash between FOI’s broad goals and the unique (and rapidly changing) realties of the university environment. They are multi-million pound institutions with networks that stretch across the globe. Academics share data everyday; peer review challenges ideas. They are in direct competition with each other for students and for research funding.

A lot has been written in recent months this topic, from various angles: epidemiologists in The Lancet have espoused the virtues of sharing data for better public health; FOI advocate Heather Brooke has defended Philip Morris’ requests to Stirling University; the Commons’ Science and Technology committee urged guidance be drawn up to help academics cope with FOI following the climate-gate affair (the ICO has just done so); David Colquhoun fought against the teaching of a BSc in homeopathy at University of Central Lancashire using FOI; George Monbiot has outlined the manifold problems with dissemination via expensive academic journals; Princeton, Harvard and MIT have adopted an open-access policies; Jon Baldwin has questioned why Universities in the UK are covered by FOI at all.

We’re beginning a new project looking at the relationship between universities (and other High Education institutions), academics and researchers, and FOI/EIR. One side of the project is going to look at how academics make use of requests themselves (we’ll blog about this soon), but the other is FOI’s impact on universities. Going beyond the headlines of ‘climate-gate’, we’re hoping to find out what’s really going on. Are these cases one-offs? Or the tip of an iceberg?

We’re asking if FOI  has changed…

  • the policies or practices of universities? Or the relationships with their students, funders and competitors?
  • the way they bid for contracts, or the kind of information they proactively release?
  • what researchers chose to study? Or how they are able to publish and personally gain from their research?
  • the mindset of researchers when it comes to sharing data and results?

We hope to be able to provide some answers to the above questions. We’re going to be interviewing academics and requesters, looking at the case law and analysing the requests themselves. We’ll be adding more information to our project page over the course of the next year. Keep an eye on us (we are, after all, covered by FOI!)

Open Data Consultation Launched

The government has launched a consultation today on Open Data and how to move forward the transparency agenda by encouraging ‘push’ (pro-active release) and ‘pull’ (stronger rights for access to data). The consultation covers a wide range of areas

  • Proactive: how to ensure ICTs systems can publish data easily and make pro-active publication a ‘default’ setting
  • Costs: possibly raising the cost ceiling for FOI requests (a ceiling of £1000, instead of £600 is suggested)
  • Changing mechanisms: giving the ICO more power, creating a new right to appeal for datasets and limiting internal review times

The paper also contains two interesting annexes on evidence of impact and draft principles.

For a brief summary see here and a discussion thread here. This appears to form part of a further push of the transparency agenda, alongside other initiatives. David Cameron recently said the reforms had now moved to ‘phase two’ from publishing core data to publishing more about public services and how they perform.

‘If our transparency focus over the past 12 months has been to open up core central government data in areas such as spending, our priority over the next year will be to release new data on the performance of public services. This revolution in government transparency will make it easier than ever before for the public to make informed choices between providers and hold government to account for the performance of key public services’.

What Does the Future Hold for FOI and Open Data?

FOI Live 2011: Thursday 23rd June

University College London

www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/events/foilive-2011

There has been lots of discussion in the past few days about transparency and Open Data as government publishes full lists of who does what. This comes on top of debate and discussion about FOI and Open Data as local authorities and central government release all sorts of information from spending data to Zombie attacks. But what will it all mean? This year FOI Live 2011 at University College London will try and find out.

The speakers are now

  • Tim Kelsey, the UK government’s adviser on Transparency and Open Data, who will be speaking about the new transparency agenda.
  • Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith

The programme also includes

  • Chris Taggart of Open Data site Openly Local, Oliver Lendrum from the Ministry of Justice and Nicola Westmore from the Cabinet Office answering your questions on Open Data and the future of FOI
  • An interactive question and answer session with journalists and campaigners who use FOI including Paul Francis from the Kent Messenger, Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC, Matthew Sinclair from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information

Whose freedom is it?

In March 2010, an animal rights activist sent Freedom of Information requests to universities for details of experiments conducted on animals.

“We’re putting the FOIs in just to find out what is happening with vivisection at the universities. If they’ve got nothing to hide, then it’s not a problem for them to put the information out there,” the activist told The Guardian.

The underlying statement was clear: if they don’t disclose their research, they are probably doing something worth hiding, and whatever information they did disclose would be used to protest against them — a Catch-22 scenario.

The FOI law has become a preferred tool of anyone involved in politics — and it is not surprising, as obscurity is one of the main characteristics of an undemocratic government. No one can argue against the right to government transparency in the UK – but does it trump academic freedom?

Last month, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, said FOI was being used by organised campaigns as a tool to intimidate some scientists and that the current law should be revised. He said this after the launch of a Royal Society study meant to examine ways of improving access to scientific data.

“I have been told of some researchers who are getting lots of requests for, among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions. If it is true, it will consume a huge amount of time. And it’s intimidating,” Nurse told The Guardian, adding that some requests may have been intended to simply stop scientists from working.

Nurse may have been referring to the University of East Anglia’s ‘Climategate’ scandal, where e-mails showing scientists trying to avoid FOI requests – some by climate change sceptics were hacked and revealed.

The Unit, headed by Professor Phil Jones, was flooded with requests. Some e-mails showed scientists figuring out ways to sidestep them, while others showed them desperate to stop responding and get back to work.

“This is all about academic freedom. I’m just a humble scientist trying to do research,” Jones told Martin Rosenbaum, who writes the BBC’s Open Secrets Blog about Freedom of Information.

Nurse is not the only one who thinks FOI and academic freedom are often mutually exclusive. In April, the Mackinac Centre, a policy research group with libertarian and conservative influences, filed requests with the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University asking for e-mails that mention collective bargaining disputes. This prompted Ian Robinson, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, to collect 1600 signatures on a petition for academic freedom.

In Virginia, the American Association of University Professors, the Virginia ACLU, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and nine other groups called on the University of Virginia to “[balance] the interests in public disclosure against the public interest in academic freedom”. This was in response to a FOI request on the work of climate scientist Michael Mann.

On the other hand, academics immersed in controversial research projects such as climate change, or have contentious methodology — animal testing — are the usually the ones receiving a large amount of requests. Besides, these bodies generate much of the data circulated through newspapers, magazines, blogs — in other words, it is the data we all feed on. Shouldn’t it be the public’s right to scrutinise their scientific methods?

Besides, scientists have safeguards within the law to protect them from vexatious requests, said Maurice Frankel, the Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in a letter to The Guardian, responding to Nurse’s statement.

“Unreasonable requests for all pre-publication drafts of scientific papers can be refused under an exemption for information due for future publication,” he said.

“Explanations of why changes to successive drafts were made do not have to be provided unless they exist in writing. Multiple related requests from different people, if they are co-ordinated, can be refused if the combined cost of answering exceeds the act’s cost limit,” he said.

Hiding information may also make things worse for scientists, Frankel said.

“It was the misguided attempt to deny ammunition to critics that led to the [University of East Anglia] Climategate fiasco,” he said.

The hacking of CRU’s e-mail was reportedly triggered by the institution’s sidestepping of FOI requests – people who believed their right to obtain information was being trampled on (others question whether the Russian or the Chinese government is the real culprit).

Having the right to refuse information when it clashes with some scientists’ own freedoms seems like the optimal way to guarantee the rights of the requester and the provider of information simultaneously. And it’s already provisioned in the law. But do the safeguards really help academics studying controversial matters?

Whether academics deny or provide ammunition to their critics, they will be criticised or harassed nonetheless. Regardless of whether the academic is acting within the law, not providing information can turn into a self-directed bullet.

Open Data: What Do We Know?

Across the world government’s are pushing Open Data and extolling its many benefits. But what’s happened?

Some sites have begun collecting Open Data success stories. Some are potentially life saving as with routes for the Amsterdam Fire Brigade. There can also provide more day-to-day help with bin collection dates, missing bus stops and the now famous Denmark public toilet locater

A new site from New Zealand is also collecting stories with examples from the UK including a comparison site that uses Open Data to compare a whole variety of things to an online tax calculator.

One of the most famous, and visually interesting, is the site ‘where does my money go?’, which allows you to see how much of your taxes goes where.

One of the more interesting, and perhaps controversial, aims of Open Data particularly in the US and UK, relates to crime prevention. This includes creating crime maps  which have prompted debate on whether such initiatives need more contextual information and about who could use it and to what ends. A similar debate is happening in the US as several states push for online criminal registers for everything from violent crime to dangerous pets.

The media, in the UK the particularly the Guardian, are also starting to use new data sources. It has used the data to look at spending from, as it puts it, private schools to coal as well as David Cameron’s kitchen (s) and chocolate based staff away days. There are some more interesting examples of data journalism here.

As this article points out, there’s a lot we do not know. It may depend on lots of unpredictable factors including how long politicians support and fund it and who uses it. Technology plus human behaviour has a way of doing the unexpected.

The 1st Global Conference on Transparency Research

The 1st Global Conference on Transparency Research, a multi-disciplinary and multi-method conference will be hosted by Rutgers University-Newark. This conference is co-sponsored by:

• Rutgers School of Law-Newark (primary sponsor)
• Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information –CELE-, School of Law, Palermo University, Argentina
• The Constitution Unit, University College London, UK
• Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions
• School of Public Administration, Renmin University of China
• School of Public Administration and Public Policy, Kookmin University, Korea
• School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers-Newark, USA

The purpose of the conference to bring together scholars from a wide range of fields including sociology, anthropology, political science, public administration, cultural studies, political economy, journalism, technology, and law who study issues of governmental transparency. This is the first large meeting of its kind to bring together leading scholars from throughout the world to collectively advance our understanding of the impact and implications of transparency policies that involve governments, either directly or indirectly. This includes policies on access to information held by and about governments, transparency relationships between government entities, transparency relationships between governments and private and non-profit entities, and access to information held by government about individuals.

The conference committee has put together an excellent program. Professor Christopher Hood, the Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow of All Souls College Oxford, is the conference keynote speaker. The keynote speech is sponsored by Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions. Marco Daglio, Head of the Public Service Delivery Unit, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development will present an overview of the OECD’s Open Government Project. Martin Tisné, Program Manager of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, will present an assessment of which areas of inquiry related to transparency and accountability deserve increased scholarly attention. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative is a donor collaborative that includes the Ford Foundation, Hivos, the International Budget Partnership, the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Institute, the Revenue Watch Institute, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

We received over 270 paper proposals from scholars from around the world. A total of 115 of these proposals were accepted. Concurrent panel topics include fiscal transparency, municipal transparency, accountability, corruption, whistle blowing, regional overviews, theoretical foundations, institutional forces, and freedom of information laws and implementation. Five organizations (Canada’s International Development Research Centre, Open Society Foundations Human Rights Governance and Grants Program, Open Society Foundations Latin America Program, Open Society Foundations Rights Initiatives, Right to Information Fund, and World Bank Institute) have agreed to provide support to fund a total of 29 individuals from developing countries. The organizing committee is very grateful for their support of these scholars. We have individuals presenting their work from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.

The conference will take place at the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers University-Newark. On the evening of Wednesday, April 18th there will be reception at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). The following evening, Thursday April 19th, the conference participants will have dinner at the Newark Museum. The dinner will begin with a cocktail reception outside (weather permitting) and a gallery viewing of the American wing and the Victorian Ballantine House—a National Historic Landmark. The dinner will be in the Museum’s central atrium. For more information on the conference schedule and how to register for the conference visit http://spaa.newark.rutgers.edu/home/conferences/1stgctr.html

Wikileaks: new movements and slings and arrows?

A thought piece on the impact of Wikileaks by Evgeny Morozov, author of ‘The Net Delusion’ and a leading sceptic on the internet’s power to democratise the world, offers a few interesting thoughts on Wikileaks that also may relate to the world of FOI and transparency.

The first is that Wikileaks may, in time,  form part of a wider movement towards a ‘free internet’, which could include more attempts to promote (or force) transparency as well as issues such as copyright. What Morozov calls a ‘movement of geeks’ could well form around Wikileaks, combined with groups such as the Pirate party, who grew out of the Pirate Bay downloading site.

This may mirror the increasing convergence of FOI advocates with the Open Data movement, who have found that their interests are moving in the same direction, though not all transparency advocates are fans of Wikileaks. With a possible new Right to Data in the freedom bill, they look  set to move closer still.

The second point is that of how championing ‘internet freedom’ can quickly rebound back on a government. Hillary Clinton made a very strong speech on internet freedom in January 2010, implicitly promising to drop iphones to ‘netziens’ like Britain dropped sten guns to the French resistance. She has now been accused of hypocrisy after the US government’s heavy handed response to Wikileak’s activities and some less than freedom-loving snooping on social media.

Similarly, FOI has a way of coming back to haunt politicians. Promises of openness have a powerful boomerang factor. Some see the danger early on, like Lyndon Johnson who refused to publicly sign the US Act in1966 and rather tepidly endorsed it following, it is said, a stream of un-presidential language. For all those of a more cynical bent, you could perhaps compare the young FOI enthusiast Tony Blair with the later more world weary politician, tired of the slings and arrows of outraged requesters.