Open Public Data are so good that it's hard to start explaining why

Today I have participated to an international meeting in Madrid on the reuse of Public Sector Information. I came to gather as much information and food for thought as possible for my new research on Open Data for an Open Society and wasn’t deluded.

Public Sector Information, or PSI for short, is very easy to define in a few words (even if managing it in the right way may be one of the most difficult things in the world): this terms defines all the information and documents that any Public Administration (PA) produces and uses during its ordinary tasks: everything from digital maps and weather forecast to city budgets, tenders and management of public utilities like water or energy.

Open reuse of PSI consists of two things:

  • having PAs publish online all the data they produce and use, in the right way: raw, granular data published without charges or limitations for their reuse and in the right format, that is with open formats or web interfaces that make it as easy as possible to gather, correlate and process data in any conceivable way
  • having everybody, from the PAs themselves to every business and single citizens who feels like it, to reuse, remix and republish those data to save or make lots of money, or to make sure that PAs are doing their jobs properly

Today PSI reuse happens very, very, very seldom and this produces all kinds of paradoxes and waste: there are PAs that pay private companies for packaged versions of the data that they themselves produced and licensed very cheaply to those companies, citizens that cannot see or must pay to see data they paid for with their taxes, small businesses that sometimes can’t even start because they’d need data that should be public and free but aren’t.

Looking at how these problems can be overcome and PSI can become really open, create wealth and favour transparency in government is why I started my research project and the theme of the Madrid meeting. As I said, it has been a great meeting. Here is a partial list, in semi-random order, of the most interesting concepts discussed during the day. I am sure that they will give to all of us who are now working in this field lots to think about, and I am publishing them here to stimulate everybody else to do the same. After all, it’s your data, and practically everything your state and local government do for (or against…) you is decided and justified by looking at those same data.

  • Several participants (there where people from many EU countries) have stated that there is need for strong political leadership and vision at the top, in order to make PSI reuse happens as soon as possible
  • I've also heard the concept that one of the ways to get politicians interested is to convince them that this will create jobs. I partially disagree on this, or more exactly, I think this is not the complete story. For me there is no doubt that opening PSI will create lots of business opportunities and, in many cases, local jobs. At the same time, it's also very likely that open PSI will make quite some public jobs useless. If data are already available to all citizens for free online, what need remains for clerks (and clerk supervisors) that only print paper to hand it over to the citizen who came to their office because it was the only way to have that information?
  • another very interesting thing is that, according to practically all speakers, it is very difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to quantify in advance the economic value of opening PSI. The common consensus seems that when data are opened, eventually a lot of money is either saved or gained (Amalia Velasco gave some quite impressive numbers to prove it for the Spanish Cadastre), but calculating it beforehand is very difficult, mainly because this is a very new field and imagining all the possible use cases is really hard. The conclusion? Stop looking for business cases, and just release the data. If you wait for a business case, nothing will happen!
  • What about citizens of one country that would like to use, maybe to start a business, the data of another country? Should they have the same access to them as the citizens of that country, the only ones who paid for them with their taxes? Even ignoring international complications, another thing that came out several times by several speakers as an obstacle when convincing PA departments to give away for free the data... that maybe they sell just to pay for their own operating expenses, is that money made or saved by PSI reuse not only is difficult to calculate beforehand, but often it may go to other PAs or to the whole government, not to the specific PA that created and opened some data
  • This said, I've already heard lots of anecdotal evidence that opening PSI creates wealth: Husets Web (Denmark), that helps homeowners and their municipalities to reduce pollution and save on energy costs, Goolzoom (Spain) that saves lots of time and money to people looking for a house or working in the real estate market and Caselex (based in Netherlands with its legal services, are only some of the examples brought at the meeting that are very useful for all citizens and already created some jobs
  • There was much more interesting stuff at the meeting that I could sum up in these few words. I will surely write more here about all I heard today, and also use it in my research, so stay tuned, and if you have other examples or comments about these themes, please let me know!