Opening up government data: how to solve the chicken-or-egg question?


By Hille Hinsberg, government innovator and member of Open Knowledge Estonia


I’ve read dozens of research and articles, claiming that re-use of data held by public sector institutions is a key to improve public services, ensure transparency, build trust and motivate civic participation. It will produce gains in technological innovation and efficiency in administration.

And I've heard plenty of officials say that they don´t buy any of it. That they have not seen it happen in Estonia, and even after they have made efforts in turning one of their datasets into a machine-readable format and putting it up on the state portal, no-one has shown any interest in actually using it.

The funny thing is that both views are credible! – this is what the chicken-or-egg question is all about. First,  there will always be claims from the open data community that some public domain data is missing,  or even if available, then presented in a way which makes it too complicated to interpret or re-use it, e.g. compare with other datasets, or find answers from user perspective.  If more data is made accessible and re-usable, lots of benefits will follow. On the other side of the equation are civil servants who keep asking what is the concrete purpose for requesting this or that dataset to be published in a way to enable further elaboration. Well, if you don't show what you've got, how can we say what it can be used for, right?

Here is one of the reasons why public sector institutions should put more effort in opening data for potential re-use, however undefined –  it´s because this data belongs to all of us.  Take for example Statistics Board  - they have collected data from citizens and enterprises,  so citizens and entrepreneurs have the right to work with this aggregated data for their own goals.

The proactive release of open government data is helping to transform public services at the national and 

subnational levels. In addition to making data available to citizens, countries that rank the highest also

report a higher level of data re-use and creation of applications. Source: oecd.org


Open Knowledge Estonia
has started collecting user needs for opening up government-held data, the current catalogue is available as a base platform to either use data or put in some efforts to get the data out and open.

One way to match community interests and institutions is to find common challenges and aims, and use data to create new solutions. Hackathon is a format that brings a diverse group together, identifying common interests and getting serious about doing something towards a better solution.

Maybe your business might benefit from tracking city residents' routine traffic routes? Maybe you care about public spending and how to put our tax money into better use for improving city infrastructure? Maybe you are interested in the crime statistics around your home area?

These sample cases all need data to get answers. The solutions are more likely found with a combined effort of data analysts, tech savvies, designers – the crowd that usually gathers around hackathons.

The upcoming "Garage48 Baltic Open & Big Data 2017" event is specifically pushing the use of open and big data, and one track is calling on fans of government open data. The track brings in lots of challenges and ideas from both public sector and community.

It is supported by  Creative Entrepreneurship Academy  (CEA) which promotes creativity in governance and innovative public services. CEA offers a dialogue platform for the public sector, the business community (IT businesses, start-ups, etc.) and creatives with the aim of considering the factors stimulating innovation in e-governance. CEA provides insight into public-sector expectations and requirements in ordering e-products or e-services and highlights creatives´ role in providing user-friendly contents.

Here is the link to register for the hackathon or the CEA series of events ranging from innovation workshop to Bootcamp on service design and building business model around newly created prototypes.