It seems we still live in the infancy of open government data, which is all about availability and quality. In this post we submit 5 more suggestions to usher in the mature age: open data as a prized participation tool.

1. Answer data demand

An excellent way to create databases that are actually used is to let users have a say about what they want in it. A straightforward means of doing that is freedom of information (FOI) requests. Groups or individuals make a claim for punctual data and access is provided on a case-by-case basis. The problem here is that FOI procedures are mostly unpopular or just unknown, and the result of a claim –be it positive or negative– lacks publicity. Hopefully, civil society can rise up to the challenge. The website WhatDoTheyKnow facilitates FOI on top of being itself a repository of collected answers. Taking this logic one step further, one can imagine a crowdsourcing of problem and data definition. In the process of opening up its data, government would broadly invite end-users to stress out those among their issues which can be alleviated with data, and what type of data is needed for each.

2. Reach out strategically

Data Journalism Handbook

credit: Data Journalism

Citizens must get to know there is a new information offer for them, hence advertising open data platforms to the broader public is important. However, an easier and possibly more efficient step as an open data provider is to reach those organisations that bridge between government and citizens.

Civil society is always in need of weapons for advocacy and to mobilise the crowd. Media groups are keeping their audience in the loop about all things public and have been seriously integrating large datasets in their work.

Data journalism gets data into daily information, building from it as a new range of sources opening up additional perspectives, and illustrating or personalising story-telling.


3. An opportunity for efficiency gains

Why not hitting two targets at once? Open data platforms have an outward utility, but can also add value in the running of government services. Silos are the disease of bureaucracy, primarily because they prevent information from flowing smoothly to where it is needed. Data disclosure and easy access can thus offer tremendous gains internally. From this starting point, it becomes difficult to argue open data is unaffordable. That’s also a great incentive for administrations to curate and share data by default, which leaves them only a small effort away from providing the public with comprehensive data platforms. A strong illustration here is the Open Ahjo system implemented by Helsinki city council.

4. Engage the web community

Government platforms and the citizens’ routine are often poorly connected. Web-based or mobile applications therefore are a welcome addition in many cases. Since this kind of solutions doesn’t normally originate in government, leveraging the developer community is key. The difficulty lies in finding how. Helsinki city council came up with interesting solutions. It set up Forum Virium, a venue where city officials and developers can meet up monthly and exchange about their needs and ongoing projects. Datademo was launched as a direct incentive to create apps building from government data. This competition gives upfront seed funding to all participating teams and more financial support to winning projects –total budget: €48,000 (only). One requirement: apps must use data curated by Helsinki or Finland authorities to inform citizens and make them more engaged in policy-making. The city of Paris also opened up large quantities of data and is now gathering interest for this resource among developers and business actors via the website DataCity initiative.

Data Building an Open City

credit: Forum Virium Helsinki

5. Integrate with participation mechanisms

Participation and open data shouldn’t be miles apart. This statement can be made quite literally when it comes to civic tech. There is no reason why citizen engagement happening online couldn’t share a location with data repositories. Shortening the journey between the two, a research suggests, is promising for the quantity and quality of participation. And that is easily understood: one would hardly look for council decisions on local government websites, but would easily take interest in excerpts of it popping up next to a related discussion topic on the area’s crowdsourcing platform. But note the logic applies to other cases. When an open data policy actively targets software developers, a third dimension can be added to this online destination as a welcome desk. When data trainings are deployed, learning materials are aptly located next to databases that could be used for real-conditions exercises.

Heard of other open data practices and initiatives making it truly easier for citizens to take part? Please leave a comment!