Tag Archives: open government

Three big challenges for Open Government

A couple of colleagues from Delib and I had the pleasure of attending a workshop this week run by the Open Government Partnership Civil Society Network in Bristol, led by Tim Hughes from Involve.

The workshop brought together a mix of people working in digital democracy in Bristol and the area with the goal of discussing what the OGP has achieved so far and what the priorities should be in the future – then working up some new ideas of our own for how to make the vision a reality.


To give some background, the Open Government Partnership was launched in 2011, bringing together governments and civil society around the world to promote transparency, build civic participation and tackle corruption. Each country that signs up produces an action plan, which contains a series of commitments to opening up government. The UK is now on its second action plan – which includes commitments to make more data open data, to practise ‘open policy making’, and to increase transparency among government contracts, amongst others.

The OGP Civil Society Network plays the role of coordinating civil society input to what government is doing, ensuring that the process of opening government itself does not become a closed one! They are also collecting the public’s contributions to a crowdsourced Open Government Manifesto – using (what else) our very own Dialogue App.

With a desire to make sure they avoid being too London-centric, they are running a series of workshops around the country this spring to engage with local civil society – and it was the inaugural session that brought them to Bristol.


Personally, I got a lot out of the workshop. In particular, listening to a group of people expressing their hopes and concerns for Open Government highlighted what for me are three of the biggest challenges in this area:

1. Turning transparency into participation

Working in government, the open government agenda tends to generally be very closely associated with open data and transparency. This is one of the areas where the UK has performed very strongly on a global scale – coming in at first place for 2014 in Open Knowledge’s Open Data Index. Sites like data.gov.uk are really impressive pieces of work, and the enterprising citizen now has an unprecedented range of government information available to them at the end of a google search.

However, I can’t help feeling that this strand of work only takes us so far. Whilst all of this data is useful, much of it is unintelligible to the ordinary citizen without being summarised or analysed by an expert. Such a focus on opening up datasets risks neglecting one of the other main strands of the OGP’s work – increasing participation. After all, what better incentive do citizens have to engage with the data that is available to them than if they are asked to make real decisions based on that data? There is also the concern that the section of the population that engages with open data tends to be predominantly well-educated, well-employed, and already in the orbit of government and policy.

Projects like the open policymaking pilots show a lot of promise – in the future I’d love to see government finding more ways to let citizens make, or at least contribute to, the decisions that the data can help inform.

2. Making the data useful to everyone

Following on from the point above, there are a lot of challenges relating how data is presented. We could perhaps imagine a matrix that plots clarity against obscurity on one axis, and useful accuracy against confusion/inaccuracy on the other. Typically, a lot of information released by government is either clear but confusing/inaccurate or accurate but obscure/unintelligible.

For the former I am thinking of press releases, ministerial speeches and infographics that use easy to understand language and visuals, but strip out the important detail to an extent that without context they are very little use in appraising the policy concerned.

For the latter, I mean the very lengthy delivery plans, parliamentary bills, and spreadsheets of data that are all publicly available, and comprehensive in their detail, but whose size and complexity mean that they are only really of use to the few people with the time and inclination to read them.

It would be great to see more data that is both clear and comprehensive, giving the facts in a nuanced way that is also easy to understand. There already some organisations that do good work producing this kind of information – fullfact.org is a favourite of mine, and the BBC and Guardian Data Blog do a good job too.

In the future, I think it’s important for government to be filling this space more – working hard to make sure that everything published presents all the facts, rather than the ministerial office’s ‘lines’, and seeks always to inform, rather than to hide or deflect.

3. Turning Open Government into something big

One of the real difficulties when discussing Open Government is balancing expectations against reality in terms of the scale of what can be achieved. The concept promises a lot,  especially in the current era, with its distrust of politicians and parties. There’s also the sense that new technology should have the potential to redesign the way we participate in public life in the same way it has completely changed how we shop and socialise.

In this context, some of the projects that are being carried out – many of which are quite specific and policy-wonkish – might appear to be failing to address the issues at the required scale. What the government has done to improve transparency in aid spending, or what we do at Delib to help councils consult on budgets, is (we believe) good and important work, but it all often falls beneath the public radar despite our best efforts. At the workshop, there was also a sense that even for those us working in the sector, the goals and actions of the UK’s Open Government programme hadn’t been high-profile enough.

For open government to really capture the imagination of the wider public, we need to embrace big ideas, and these ideas need representation at the top of our political system. The OGP has called on political parties to commit to open government going into the general election – let’s hope they do!

Thanks again to Tim and Jo (with support from Development Initiatives and VOSCUR) for facilitating a fun and thought-provoking session – see you again soon!


Eight business models for government open data

Alex Howard has written an excellent article over at the O’Reilly Radar listing eight business models for government open data, a handy list for those in government agencies attempting to justify to senior management or ministers why releasing government data is important and valuable.

The models listed in Alex’s article, Open data economy: eight business models for open data and insight from Deloitte UK, were identified by Michele Osella, a researcher and business analyst in the Business Model & Policy Innovation Unit at the Istituto Superiore Mario Boella in Italy.

(Note that these are classified in Europe as Public Sector Information (PSI) reuse cases.)

I’ve included the list of eight business models below.

From the article:

  1. Premium Product / Service: HospitalRegisters.com
  2. Freemium Product / Service: None of the 13 enterprises interviewed by us falls into this case, but a slew of instances may be provided: a classic example in this vein is represented by mobile apps related to public transportation in urban areas.
  3. Open Source: OpenCorporates and OpenPolis
  4. Infrastructural Razor Blades: Public Data Sets on Amazon Web Service
  5. Demand-Orientated Platform: DataMarket and Infochimps
  6. Supply-Oriented Platform: Socrata and Microsoft Open Government Data Initiative
  7. Free, as Branded Advertising: IBM City Forward, IBM Many Eyes or Google Public Data Explorer
  8. White-Label Development: This business model has not consolidated yet, but some embryonic attempts seem to be particularly promising.

Osella’s presentation on the topic is worth a watch for reference – it provides more detail and case studies on each of these.

Open Data, Government, and the importance of acting now…

I’m currently at the fantastic Picnic festival in Amsterdam, where many things are being discussed under this years theme Urban Futures.

One of the highlight of yesterday was a round table discussion on Open Government Data. The speakers included Lawrence Lessig, one of the founders of the Creative Commons model and Rufus Pollock, of the Open Knowledge Foundation, who made interesting points expressing each of their views on how and why we need to take open data seriously.

The top line opinions were that opening up data led to a net increase in innovation, efficiency and GDP. Its hard to find concrete research to reference on this point, but the theory is sound, and examples like the opening up of Nasa’s imagery data facilitating things like Google Earth (and ongoing research from releasing more data) mean we’re starting to see empirical evidence.

But then the conversation turned to the importance of time in this process.

Firstly the fact that the current, strong arguments in favour of opening up data won’t work forever. The idea that innovation, efficiency and GDP can be increased by opening up data are practical arguments that will lose their potency. So to really achieve the benefits open data can offer, we need to make this a political issue, that parties present policy approaches on.

Secondly, a large number of the decisions around opening up data are being made imminently, and so we will need to increase awareness of this issue and act fast if we are to prevent some data being either locked up or sold (particularly given the current economic climate). In this respect UK, is making advances with data.gov.uk and the release of linked data sets.

At Delib we recently finished our first Open Data project I Heart My City and will be hoping to do more work in this area in the future.

Here’s a picture of Lawrence Lessig at the round table, holding an invisible rodent.

Lawrence Lessig holding an invisible rodent

Meet the Delib team (via video)

Increasingly we’re working with a lot of our clients remotely – and never actually meet them : – ( To keep costs down and create efficiencies this is important – especially if clients are the other side of the world – however, this does mean we lose a wee bit of the *awesomeness* that comes through human interaction.

So, to go some way to try to counter this, we’re creating increasing numbers of videos as part of our work – to communicate who we all are and what we’re thinking.

Here’s a quick video called hello (nothing more to say really!):

Dialogue App powered QHSR project wins Intergovernmental Solutions Award

Going one better than our previous nomination for a Citizen Service Award, the pioneering National Dialogues for the US Department of Homeland Security won an Intergovernmental Solutions Award this week.

The project was based on the Dialogue App platform (albeit a pretty souped-up and customised version), and we’re immensely proud to see the work recognised. Massive props should go to our friends at NAPA who oversaw and ran the entire project, and to DHS for stepping out and using this open, online approach.

A bit more info about the Intergovernment Solutions Awards:

The 2010 theme for the annual Management of Change conference is 30 Years of Collaboration. We have expanded that concept for the ISA competition to incorporate the three priority areas addressed in the President’s Open Government Initiative – transparency, participation, and collaboration.

A panel of judges, including senior executives from government and industry, reviewed all nominations and selected the finalists based on the following criteria.

1. Operational Eligibility

2. Executive Summary and Project Description

3. Intergovernmental and Collaborative

4. Transforming the Business and Improving the Operations of Government

5. Advancing Open Government


Open Gov the way forward for US, UK and now India

The US Government has pledged $1 million towards helping India’s Open Government initatives. The money will go towards sharing best practices in working toward improved services and democratic accountability.

Along side the US Government’s own Data.gov and the UK Governments Data.gov.uk projects there is no shortage of new and interesting ways for people to get information about how we are being governed and influence decisions.

India looks like it will go direct to mobile as the main delivery of its information, something both the UK and the US seem a little slow on adopting, so in a few years maybe it will be India giving us a hand with technology adoption.

How to make open government sustainable – SXSW round-up #1

If SXSW is geek central. Then yesterday’s “In code we trust” session was geek government central. And it was a really interesting session.

Geeks in government is a pretty big thing these days – something proved by yesterday’s “In code we trust” panel session at the SXSW festival – which was completely packed out. Up on stage were 3 pretty clever and insightful people (Alissa Black from San Fransisco, Noel Hildalgo from NYC Dmitry Kachaev from Washington DC), who’ve all gotten their hands pretty dirty doing OpenGov Gov.20 work – and they did some great idea sharing in their 60 min slot.

To share some geek government love, here are some quick take-aways from the session:

How can you make open government sustainable? – lessons from Alissa Black on how San Francisco’s OpenSF initiative.

Alissa said that their OpenSF iniative was structured around 3 core activities:

  • Open Source
  • Participation
  • Transparency

1) The first thing they focused on was transparency – focusing in on collating data sets from all departments. However, what they found was that not all depts were co-operatve, so they created got the Mayor of San Fran to mandate the “Open Data Directive” which made it mandatory for all depts to share their data. A simple top-down solution, to enable bottom-up innovation.

2) The next thing to move on was participation – providing platforms and apps to allow people to share ideas and access the open data. Example of these were RecoverySF, and Improve SF – their first attempt at an idea crowd-sourcing project.
Possibly one of the most interesting participation projects was their “employee budget challenge”, an internal crowd-sourcing process to get ideas from SF employees on how make the most of their budgets – which gathered 300 ideas and 1000 votes from 314 users.

3) The cherry on the cake for SF was a focus on Open Source. To promote Open Source within the wider SF government agency they created a mandatory open source software procurement policy where if you’re commissioning a software project over the value of $100,000, then you have to evaluate an open source option; that’s to say you don’t have to use open source, but you have to evaluate it as an option.

So there you go – 3 top tips from the West Coast on making Open Gov sustainable. More from SXSW soon ; – )