Letter from the Low Lands: Will we have many open geo data trees, or go for a single open data forest?

September 26, 2011

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Open data as a topic has come to the Netherlands on the wave of Gov2.0 with possibly an extra push for greater transparency. The push comes not only from the Anglo-Saxon world, but also from the European Commission, which is very positive toward open data. Initiatives to encourage thinking about open data are currently abundant. But what will happen beyond the apps-in-a-day (“hackathon” for open data) events?

Open Government

It’s hard to know where and when a trend starts. The same is true for “open data” in the Netherlands. The fact is that TNO, the national independent research organization, delivered a report on Open Government to the Ministry of Interior last April, and that seems to be something of a driver.

The key question in that report: which data can be disclosed, and how? TNO looked at developments in countries that already have an open government policy and came up with a list of 12 recommendations. Some of them include: provide better government services with open data, offer open data to students and entrepreneurs, and appoint open data leaders.

An important driver for open government is a European Commission directive related to reuse of government data. This directive takes a clear position on the role of government and commercial firms in general. Value creation may happen as part of government tasks, but do we want the value capture to take place there as well? Is that what government is for?

So what is stopping open data from moving ahead? TNO points to a closed and risk averse organizational culture within government as a barrier. Clearly there are privacy and security issues involved as well, but it is hard to estimate how much government data would be affected by those issues.

Executive support

There is no lack of executive support on the topic of open data. It was Minister Maxime Verhagen himself, responsible for innovation, among other things, who tweeted that government will do more with open data. Verhagen, a self-proclaimed IT fan, put together a Digital Agenda, which is all about working smart with IT. The Dutch program is strongly linked to the European Digital Agenda. At the introduction of the program, he pointed out that IT has been responsible for more than half of the economic growth in the Netherlands from 1985 to 2005. And that is just what he expects open data to do as well: contribute to economic growth.

The cabinet sees open data as a means to deliver new products and services to its citizens. For that reason, governmental agencies must make data openly available as much as possible. Data should also be easy to reuse and to develop upon. Data will be “open, unless” (for some reason they cannot be shared). Open data will take a vital role and enable an open innovation ecosystem of technologies and data. Lots of open data trees: app-in-a-day events are now abundant and several municipalities have started major open data initiatives.

And for Geo?

The recently launched centralized databases (or keyregisters) have a big geographic component and the data are increasing available without charge to others. This is an extra push for open geo data. Many single initiatives have popped up and published raw and a bit more structured open geo data.

But sometimes just publishingthe data is not that easy. Rijkswaterstaat’s (the National Department of Transportation) move to publish the digital National Road Network was opposed by businesses that saw their business models going down the drain. Some government authorities have a business model of their own that is built on data. Those institutions cannot change their purpose without external funding overnight. An important dataset, national Zip Codes, is in the hands of a commercial company and it looks like government is about to change that soon.

Geo webservices are increasingly available through a variety of portals (National Georegister, Provinciaal Georegister) and many organizational websites. However, their impact (usage and number of applications) is hard to determine and publicly downloadable datasets are still difficult to find.

From a European perspective, The UK’s Ordnance Survey and Spain’s Instituto Geografico Nacional have taken interesting steps on the road to open data. The Dutch Kadaster has recently contributed to the world Topographic Map, increasing its accuracy and content with many steps. A European open data portal appears to be in the making.

Openness Megatrends

In my opinion, open data is an important development in the openness megatrend. As for geo, GIS thrives on openness. Gone are the days of single (tree) projects; we should be going for a complete forest of open data.

That was the very first recommendation from the TNO report: provide for a central open data portal. Also, Verhagen’s Digital Agenda’s first line of action, Space to work smarter, is directly related to open data: we will have an open data portal, where all of government canmake data available. The statement has been repeated within several levels of government. Even better: recently the government made a firm announcement: there will be a next release of the Dutch national data portal and there will be nation wide app building competition, called AppsvoorNederland.

But stimulating an open culture and open leadership will only get us slow progress. Apart from a central portal, government will need clear guidelines to execute. Open data has the potential to do away with barriers and enable open innovation. Apps-in-a-day events are fertile grounds for innovation, but we should strive for a greater structure which goes beyond the call for raw data now.

Note: open data is not “just for government.” Citizens and firms have their contributions to make as well, in order for the open data ecosystem to really work and be beneficial to society.


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