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Opening Data in Montevideo: A bottom up experience

 

Montevideo was the first city in Latin America to establish an open government data policy. In this post- which is part of the dissemination efforts of the  ODDC Project Open Cities- I would like to share preliminary findings about the case, as well as to reflect on broader issues about open data and their impact in city governance.

 

Montevideo started an open data policy in 2010, publishing a very basic set of datasets in open formats. The city had already experience publishing maps and other geographical information, which could be considered open data,  but it formalised a policy on publishing data in 2010. The policy stated in simple terms the 8 principles of open data and also made reference to the then recently approved access to public  information law (freedom of information law) in Uruguay. While authorities were supportive of the idea, the policy was designed, and advocated by a small group of  tenured public servants, most of them IT engineers working for Montevideo City.  Bottom up   innovative policies are not very common in public administration in Uruguay. There are two factors that help to understand the reasons behind  open data policy success in being approved: technical autonomy and open-source/ free software organizational culture.   In terms of technical autonomy Montevideo had a stable policy of hiring tenured public servants as IT engineers providing incentives for institutional memory and free and frank advice to authorities. Also most of the engineers would come from a free/open source software  background which share certain core beliefs with the open data movements. Montevideo City also adopted a free software policy, which also shows the strength of this practice community in the administration. In short engineers did not need to be persuaded about the virtues of open data, as they were aware of the benefits it could bring.  

 

Montevideo has released until now around 40 datasets, which also contributes significantly to the national portal of open data. Releasing datasets was a relatively straightforward process as it implied exporting data that Montevideo systems were already generating. Some datasets had to be prepared for publication including metadata and adopting an open format. Datasets cover a wide range of topics, but transport, geographic information and administrative information (including budget) are the predominant ones.  Engineers thought that take up of Montevideo’s data would be fairly quick but reality proved different. It took at least 2 years since the policy was developed for a range of applications to emerge using Montevideo’ s datasets. Hackhatons and involvement with civil society have proved valuable in terms of disseminating information about open data policy and use of data. Several applications have emerged in transport, recycling and tourism. A particular website allowing people to search for the popularity of their names when they were born,  developed by a local NGO and a news portal was well received by the public

 

While being pioneers Montevideo might need to address further challenges in terms of open data such as infrastructure, organization and regulation. Up to date the initiative is carried out by public servants as an extra to their work duties. More specialization might help the impact of Montevideo’s policy. Furthermore innovation does not happen just by publishing datasets. Montevideo recently took the approach of fostering alliances with civil society organizations to co-create services, in a clear attempt to experiment further with open data and co-creation agenda.  There are some challenges ahead in terms of regulation, particularly with regards to data that belongs to the City but involve third party providers.  Finally demand for open data needs also to be properly articulated and fed into several activities in order to expand city’s policy

 

Montevideo might be an example of a bottom-up public servant led open data environment where the state plays a key role in developing and fostering the open data environment. It is also a case that shows synthony between public software, open source/ free software movements and open data movement and the influence middle  management can have in terms of shaping policies. Time will tell which are the best ways for such an environment to become sustainable