With a goal for creating transparency, publishing open data (OD) has become an increasing trend among governments over the past few years.
OD refers to information that can be used by anyone for any purpose and at no cost. It can take on many forms, but in order to be considered open it must be presented in a machine-readable format and available through the Internet with licensing agreements. This makes it adaptable and easier to analyze and combine with other data, which in turn provides greater usefulness and value. In addition, openly accessible data provides information, knowledge and wisdom that have the potential for a number of social, economic and environmental benefits. The major users of OD include the academic community, the private sector and governments.
The Government of Canada (GC) needs to extend its OD initiative beyond its initial three year commitment. Unnecessary cuts in the program could affect the availability and quality of Public Sector Information (PSI) while needless expenditures could adversely affect the government’s perception with citizens. This paper aims to give public organizations research-based information and recommendations by determining the benefits of OD. More specifically, it aims to answer the question: What are the social, economic and environmental benefits of shared data from public organizations?
The analyses suggest that one of the great benefits of publishing OD lies within research and development and is highly likely to create and support innovation. For example, the no-cost dissemination of data by Statistics Canada since 2012 has provided social and economic benefits for the support of research initiatives and not-for-profit organizations. Additionally, private companies often re-publish OD in the form of web or mobile applications, which have strong benefits for consumers.
Benefits of OD are provided through several mechanisms including public service delivery that informs and allows citizens to connect with their governments and supports industries by reducing the cost of data and adding opportunities for new digital products and services. In addition, OD also provides insights into trends and markets that contributed to economic growth and jobs. Studies have shown that the value of PSI can provide considerable benefits to help government organizations manage internal operations more effectively. The re-use of information allows for internal efficiencies and the prevention of fraudulent operational activities.
Issues surrounding the publishing of OD include the proper management of information through its lifecycle, which allows for effective re-use of information. The GC has established new operating standards for their OD portal. However, compliancy with policies and directives are preventing the dissemination of data, and current mechanisms for managing PSI are causing some internal disruptions.
Research has demonstrated that there is a shortage in openly available data. This lack of OD has created and fostered a culture of scrapers, or individuals who take data from public web sites and openly re-use it. This re-use of data is technically not permitted as it occurs in the absence of appropriate licensing.
The potential benefits from combining data are dependent on standards. The value of data decreases if organizations utilize different standards. The efforts needed to amalgamate data rises when standards are missing or incompatible, which in turn prevents data from being re-used. In addition, tools and guidelines are also needed to effectively amalgamate OD. Internal practices of governments were never designed for the dissemination of openly available information.
Recommendations can be made to address the issues facing the GC. The need for publishing OD is rising and departments and agencies will need guidelines and standards with clear instructions and criteria for publishing data. A lack of consistency, defined standards and procedures are preventing the aggregation of datasets.
Furthermore, the GC needs to launch their Directive on Open Government with a strong mandate to publish all data that meets the criteria. In order to create and maintain a sense of urgency and compliancy, a top-down approach is needed. A communication campaign promoting the importance of the directive should be led by the highest level of senior official within the GC. Failure to create a sense of urgency will minimize the importance and credibility of OD. In addition, the directive must mandate them to publish all data that meets the criteria for publishing openly.
The benefit derived from OD starts with the release of all available data, included data from public web sites. The GC should set a concrete goal to convert data from public web sites into open and available formats. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) needs to be the catalyst for establishing a mechanism and cycle for the continuous flow of information, thereby creating public accountability and a more cost-effective, transparent, efficient and responsive government.