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Notes on Open Data Ecosystems

Yu and Robinson (2012) describe open data as being either “adaptable” or “inert”. Manyika and colleagues, in their recent work on quantifying the economic value of opening up data, alight on the notion of open data being “liquid” (Manyika et al. 2013). That is, open data unlocks value as it flows from governments, between firms, researchers and entrepreneurs, and to citizens, and is adapted in the process. To extend the analogy borrowed from the natural sciences, the flow of data could result in a virtuous cycle, becoming a stable but dynamic part of an ecosystem. But equally possible, data could, despite being open, become inert and flow too slowly or not at all; it could be too viscous to contribute to the evolution of the ecosystem.

The conceptual framework for this analysis borrows from Helbig et al.’s (2012) “information polity” heuristic. In their white paper The Dynamics of Opening Government Data they propose the heuristic device of an “information polity” to model and analyse the context and dynamics of open data initiatives. Included in their information polity are the actors and their roles, data sources and flows, and the governance relationships in open data initiatives. We use their information polity as a starting point in modelling the open data ecosystem of our case. In particular, the definitions provided and distinctions made between primary and secondary open data sources, resources, providers and users are relied on to chart the relationships between these components of the information polity. However, we extend the information polity heuristic into a data ecosystem partly because we believe that the concept of an ecosystem enables the more accurate reflection of the resources, sources, providers and users in a context broader than when government alone acts as the primary collector and provider of data, and partly because we believe that the concept of the ecosystem will resonate to a greater degree with both practitioners and scholars, both of whom we hope will find value in the mapping and analysis of contexts and dynamics in the provision of open data.

The concept of the ecosystem has already gained a degree of traction in the analysis of how ICTs are driving change, be this in discussions on open government or open data. Harrison et al. (2012), in a review of the ecosystem metaphor in the open government literature, identify several key features of ecosystems. Ecosystems are seen as consisting of mutually interacting organisms; complex in their arrangement; characterised by the interdependency of and between organisms and resources; dynamic rather that static – seeking equilibrium through motion rather than stasis; populated by keystone species that play a critical role in facilitating exchange in the ecosystem thereby ensuring dynamism and constant movement; movement tends to be cyclical and reinforcing making the system resilient (adaptable and restorative); but it is also vulnerable to exogenous forces which may disrupt or destroy the ecosystem.

Martin Fransman (2010), in his book The New ICT Ecosystem, draws on the work of evolutionary economist Joseph Schumpeter, to describe the components of socio-economic ecosystems and to recast these components in the context of ICT which he argues constitutes one of many sectorial ecosystems within the larger socio-economic ecosystem. He identifies the dynamically interacting organisms in the ICT ecosystem (firms, non-firms, intermediaries and consumers) bound by exchange as well as by the institutions (the repositories of rules, values and norms) in which they are embedded. Key to his exposition of the ICT ecosystem is that the ICT ecosystem is driven by innovation (i.e. the injection of new knowledge into the ecosystem). Firms compete and co-operate symbiotically, and the interaction between firms and consumers (that is, between knowledge creators and knowledge consumers) generates new knowledge which leads to innovation in the ecosystem.

 It is the pursuit of innovation that keeps the ICT ecosystem in motion.

For the purposes of our analysis of a data ecosystem: If knowledge creation as a simplified process moves from observation to recording those observations to analysis to testing to validation, and data is the codified retrievable recording of observations in this process of knowledge creation, then it seems reasonable to assume that the open data ecosystem is a key component in the broader ICT ecosystem, particularly if it is premised on innovation as a key driver. What is less clear is whether innovation per se is a driver in an open data ecosystems or, if it is a driver in the open data ecosystem, what conditions need to be in place to ensure the sustainability of such an innovation-driven ecosystem.

Finally, we extend the information polity framework by adding the concept of “keystone species” which are considered crucial to ecological functioning because their presence performs some vital function (Nardi and O’Day 1999: 53). These enabling actors in the ecosystem could take the form of mediators, actors who bridge institutional boundaries and translate across disciplines, or they could “create value for their ecosystems in numerous ways, but the first requirement usually involves the creation of a platform, an asset in the form of services, tools, or technologies that offers solutions to others in the ecosystem” (Iansiti and Levin 2004: 7).

--------- by Francois van Schalkwyk @Francois_fvs2 [August 2014]



Fransman M (2010) The New ICT ecosystem: Implications for policy and regulation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Harrison C, Pardo TA & Cook M (2012) Creating open government ecosystems: A research and development agenda. Future Internet 4:900-928. Doi:10.3390/fi4040900 http://www.mdpi.com/1999-5903/4/4/900

Helbig N, Cresswell AM, Burke GB & Luna-reyes L (2012) The Dynamics of Opening Government Data. New York, Center for Technology in Government. http://www.ctg.albany.edu/publications/reports/opendata/opendata.pdf

Iansiti, M. & Levin, R. (2004). Strategy as ecology. Harvard Business Review, 1 March 2004, pp. 68–78.

Manyika J, Chui M, Groves P, Farrell D, Van Kuiken S & Doshi EA (2013) Open data: Unlocking innovation and performance with liquid information. McKinsey Global Institute. Accessed 1 November 2013. http://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/dotcom/Insights/Business%20Technology/Open%20data%20Unlocking%20innovation%20and%20performance%20with%20liquid%20information/MGI_OpenData_Full_report_Oct2013.ashx

Muller J & Cloete N (1986) The white hands: Academic social scientists and forms of popular knowledge production. Critical Arts 4(2): 1-19.

Nardi, B. & O’Day, V.L. (1999) Information ecologies: Using technology with heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Yu H & Robinson DG (2012) The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”, UCLA Law Review Discourse 178: 178-208.