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Policy, Ecosystem and Impact: Discussions of Open Government Data at ICEGOV 2013

The Seventh International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance (ICEGOV) was organised in Seoul, Republic of Korea, last October. The Conference, organised by the Center for Electronic Governance of United Nations University along with various national and international partners, is an unique annual summit for technologists, policy-makers, government officials and academics working on topics related to electronic governance. The proceedings from the Conference has recently been published by ACM Digital Library.

ICEGOV 2013 was curated around the theme of ‘Beyond 2015: Smart Governance, Smart Development.’ As the theme suggests, the issue of the Millennium Development Goals period coming to an end in 2015 and the need to envision a global developmental agenda for the post-MDG world framed the engagement with the twin ideas of ‘Smart Governance’ and ‘Smart Development’ at the Conference. Such an overall thematic of the setting highlighted two crucial questions (and roles) regarding ‘open data’ -- (1) the role of data in measuring the state of development and hence in facilitating both temporal and cross-sectional comparisons, and finally in public scrutiny of such measurements, and (2) the role of data both as an input and an outcome of ‘Smart Governance’ (or data-driven) systems and procedures. The former question addresses the critical dependence of the development discourse and actions upon the global availability of reliable, accessible, transparent, timely data, and also the empowering capacity of that very data as it is opened up for public access and usages. The second question brings forward the transformations in governance due to deployment of electronic/digital systems, and their ability to both implement insights gained from various kinds of data combined from different sources, and to systematically produce data that can be accessed and used both by humans and machines for ensuring accountability and efficiency. 

Three sessions of the Conference engaged directly with the topic of ‘open data.’ These sessions were on National Data Policies, Open Data Ecosystem, and Open Government Data Impact. Various other sessions, however, continued to discuss the opportunities and challenges related to ‘open data’ in general and ‘open government data’ in particular. Most notable among such sessions were the plenary discussion on international electronic governance rankings that explored the questions of measurement and translation into action of data, and the townhall debate on striking the balance of security, privacy and openness that discussed various challenges of both collection of and disclosure of government data.

The session on National Data Policies featured papers on best practices of securely sharing sensitive data, the government data policy in India and its potential for integration into a wider e-governance context, and the Argentine action plan for Open Government Partnership. These papers, focusing on South America and India, highlighted the need for national data policies to engage with stakeholders across scales -- from international initiatives and agreements, to the national landscape of policies and procedures governing production and circulation of government data, to the global infrastructures of information circulation and the concerns of citizens both within and beyond the national territories. The papers also showed how government data and its various processes of collection, management and publication is often regulated by different legislations and policies, and the importance of the national data policies to engage with all such factors. The discussion following the paper highlighted the need to augment the study these policies and action plans by looking at the actual lives of the data and the portals governed by them, and the actual experience of the citizens in accessing and using such data.

The three papers of the session on Open Data Ecosystem investigated various parts of such ecosystems. The first paper provided an insightful introduction to the various types of intermediaries that enable the access to and use of open government data. It identified three terms that are often used to conceptualise these intermediaries -- civic startups, open data services, and infomediaries -- and discussed their similarities and differences, so as to develop a consistent terminological framework for understanding such agencies. The second paper explored the supply of open education data regarding public universities in South Africa through the lens of the data flow, and the actors and systems that govern such flows. It described a curious situation where the government publishes a rather limited portion of the entire collected data from various public universities in South Africa, while a non-government organisation regularly gathers, through informal means, a much bigger chunk of the collected data from the same government agency and published it as open data. The third paper stepped back from the world of non-government actors to within the sphere of government to discuss the publication processes of open data through the interactions between various government agencies in India. It provided an overview of the findings from a recent survey conducted among the designated data contributors (to the national open government data platform) from various government agencies in India to highlight the key challenges faced by these officials in opening up government data. The paper noted six major categories of challenges: (1) lack of awareness regarding best practices of sharing open data, (2) lack of clarity regarding the benefits of opening up data leading to low motivation to do so, (3) insufficient capacity (human and financial) to streamline processes of collection, management and sharing of data, (4) absence of dedicated budgetary support, (5) technological limitations of present systems of data management and the need to upgrate and/or modify these systems, and (6) pending institutionalisation of open data within the everyday and regular activities of the government.

Two papers were presented in the session on Open Government Data Impact. The first paper discussed the experience of opening up government data in in Taiwan. Based on focused studies of the Taipei City Open Data Platform and the e-Networking Services of the Ministry of Transportation, the paper identified six potential factors that can improve the impact of the opened up government data -- (1) government-wide implementation open data practices through dedicated legislation and policy, (2) ensuring sectoral variety in opened up government data, (3) standardisation of data formats and sharing technologies, (4) providing open government data through a single platform, (5) government support for promoting access and use of open data, and (6) adoption of open licenses. These concerns will surely resonate with findings from across the studies being done as part of the ODDC network. More importantly, the paper foregrounded a typical challenge faced by studies trying to understand the *impact* of open government -- lack of measurable and comparable statistics on current use of already-open government data forces the authors of the paper to speculatively suggest measures that are generally accepted as positive factors (such as standardised data formats, greater sectoral and thematic variety of available data, etc.) without being able to systematically estimate the expected effects of such measures, or being able to compare the relative effects of such measures (is lack of standardised data formats a greater worry than lack of sectoral and thematic variety of data?). This same challenge was faced by the second paper too, which reviewed the technological state of open legislative data in Brazil and presented an under-development initiative to make such data more accessible. The Cidadão Automatico portal, conceptualised and being developed by the authors, is a fascinating project that plans to use open legistlative data published by governments across levels (federal, state, and local) to both analyse and predict the legislative behaviour of elected representatives, and also to use ‘social’ algorithms to highlight legislative activities to the portal’s citizen users according to their pre-exhibited interests and the interests of their peers. However, the question of *impact* remains illusive as the limitation of the present state of open data initiatives only allows for documentation of current challenges and speculation about their possible socio-technological solutions.

Before ending, let me draw attention to the fact that the 2014 edition of ICEGOV is precisely focusing on the question of data – for measuring and informing, and as an integral component of development. The theme of ICEGOV 2014 is ‘The Rise of Data Post-2015 – Empowered Citizens, Accountable Institutions’ and it will “explore research and policy implications and discuss way forward for technology-enabled and data-intensive public governance in the post-2015 world.” Please read the Call for Papers for details. I believe the studies being done as part of the ODDC network will have critical contributions to make to the various aspects of this theme of data and governance in the post-2015 world.

Author: Sumandro Chattapadhyay.

Note: I am grateful to World Wide Web Foundation for generously supporting my travel to Seoul for participating in ICEGOV 2013. The pre-publication version of my paper, titled ‘Towards an Expanded and Integrated Open Government Data Agenda for India’, can be read here.