Open data can improve society

Open data can make society more efficient and can be used to develop new services and products. But care must be taken when publishing such data. Jonathan Crusoe makes three recommendations in his doctoral thesis: Make haste slowly, prioritise quality, and assign clear areas of responsibility.

A final rehearsal, the day beforethe thesis defence. “Open data brings huge efficiency benefits, among otherthings. One municipality was able to reduce staffing by a full-time post whencitizens could seek information themselves, instead of having an employedregistrar do it”, says Jonathan Crusoe. Photo: Mikael Sönne

Open to all

To put it simply, open data is information that is easy to access, free of charge, and open to use by anyone. Three examples among many are weather data from the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, statistics about student finance from CSN, and real-time traffic information from the Swedish Transport Administration.

Jonathan Crusoe.A hectic autumn. After the thesis defence, a new job awaits at the University of Borås, moving house and taking his driving licence. Not only that, but Jonathan Crusoe will become a father for the first time. 

The Agency for Digital Government in Sweden has been commissioned to increase the ability of the public administration to publish open data, but progress has until now been slow. The OECD report OECD Open, Useful and Re-usable data puts Sweden next to last in this field. Only Lithuania performs worse.

The slow progress may at first sight appear strange, since not only has Sweden been a frontrunner in digitalisation, but also has a historical tradition of openness and public access to official documents.

“It’s an interesting paradox”, says Jonathan Crusoe. “It might be the result of our traditional focus both on the openness of official documents and on the introduction of various IT systems, while we have tended to forget that the data must also be open. Open data is slightly different from information and should preferably be machine-readable, which can raise problems when the information is intended for people.”

“Another factor is the strong self-determination of government agencies and municipalities, who may not see the value of making their data open. They want to see the benefits before they make the data open, but benefits won’t arise until they make the data open. It’s become a Catch 22 situation.”

Creating a framework

In his thesis Open Government Data as a Reform and Ecosystem – A conceptual framework for evolution and health, Jonathan Crusoe investigates various ecosystems in which different actors make open data available. He also looks at reforms at the level of society to create such ecosystems. These empirical studies enable him to create a conceptual framework, RE-EKO, that describes the interaction between reforms and ecosystems, and how they work.

Central concepts explored in the thesis include providers (those who make data available), enrichers (those who use the data to develop new products and services) and seekers (those who use the data, products and services to satisfy their needs).

One of the basic ideas behind open data is precisely that they are to be spread and used in new ways, which increases their value. Jonathan Crusoe gives an example from one of the workshops that were part of his research.

“An idea was put forward for a combined travel and weather app. The users would specify when and where they were to travel, and would then receive information about the weather when they arrive. A further development could be to suggest suitable clothing or whether it’s a good idea to take, for example, an umbrella.”

Make haste slowly

Some proponents of open data believe that as much data as possible should be made available as rapidly as possible. Jonathan Crusoe, however, is sceptical to this “open by default” strategy. He believes, in contrast, that all data should be examined and evaluated before it is made available: it is important that the information can be used.

“If you publish 200 data points and only two are used, it’s easy for observers to say: ‘What on earth are you using the money we pay in taxes for?’. In other words, the information that is published must have a purpose.”

Jonathan Crusoe also emphasises the importance of clearly defined roles and areas of responsibility in projects that deal with open data. Another practical recommendation is to carry out workshops and establish forums as part of the projects.

“People often believe that working with open data is more difficult than it actually is. The introduction process involves a lot of work, but after this there are many factors that look after themselves”, says Jonathan Crusoe. He suspects that this unfounded fear is a further reason that the introduction is proceeding so slowly in Sweden. 

Translated by George Farrants

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