A map for ‘open by default’

What experts say on reviewing open data principles

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

by Ania Calderon

More than 100 governments and expert organisations are now part of the Open Data Charter’s movement. Three years since their publication, we aim to ensure that the Principles of the Open Data Charter continue to represent the highest standards and reflect the reality faced by modern governments and institutions.

The process of reviewing and updating the Principles began in May 2018 and an analysis of the initial consultation responses has now been made by three ‘Expert Groups’. The groups included experts from around the world, representatives from governments, and institutions such as Access Info, Global Integrity and the Web Foundation. Each group focused on one of three key areas:

Principle 1, Open by Default, and the structural changes needed across the whole of government to establish a culture and practice of data openness;

Principle 2, 3, 4, Data infrastructures, namely investments in technical infrastructure, organisational practices and human capacities to sustain sound data management; and

Principles 5 and 6, Publishing with purpose and moving away from a ‘publish and they will come’ approach.

What we found most interesting were the discussions focussed on the key concept of ‘Open by Default’, and it was this that emerged as one of the most contentious issues during the review process. Seen as core to the open data movement, for some it is too vague an idea that lacks a clear definition needed to help governments put it into practice. Recommendations included further clarifying and formally defining what ‘Open by Default’ means, especially in times of increased public concerns over privacy and the scrutiny of data fed into AI systems.

To some, ‘Open by Default’ is seen as an impossible aspiration. To have a presumption of openness guiding how information is collected, shared and used, and provide justification for datasets that should be safeguarded, requires an entire change of culture and practice. As the Open Data Barometer Leaders Edition acknowledges,

‘Writing “Open by Default” in a policy paper does not automatically open up all data. To be “open by default”, governments must radically change the way they work — an aspirational but achievable aim that demands a long-term commitment to reform.’

Others feel that ‘Open by Default’ comes into conflict with a ‘Publishing with Purpose’ proposition. Yet many believed that they are not mutually exclusive — the former is a long-game, and the latter is an approach.

Just as progress is the realisation of utopias, we believe that ‘Open by Default’ is the world we want to have, while ‘Publishing with Purpose’ is a map for how we get there.

To make that a reality we will need more intentional data prioritisation based on the actual needs of key constituents, careful problem definitions and genuine user engagement. For example, in 2018, the UK government worked on a pilot with volunteer companies to inform a mandate that all employers in Britain with at least 250 staff report the difference between what they pay their male and female employees. The data released was the most comprehensive ever collected in any country, and prompted scrutiny of the worst performing. It also highlighted explanations behind the gender pay gap and some of the most effective ways of closing it.

We’re looking forward to discussing this and other key trends that emerged during the revision of the Open Data Charter Principles at the #ODCrefresh workshop as part of the International Open Data Conference in Buenos Aires this week.

Also, join our panel on Friday, 28 September at 11am or follow the conversations with #IODC2018 on Twitter.