Fuel for Discussions: The State of Open Data at IODC 2018

Next week, hundreds of policymakers, practitioners, researchers, and technologists will be gathering in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the fifth International Open Data Conference. Under the banner, ‘The Future is Open’, the conference and it’s many fringe events will share learning, explore ideas, and plan actions that can move work on open data forward over the coming years.

To support those discussions, we’ve been preparing public drafts of many of the State of Open Data chapters (ahead of the full book being published in early 2019), and we’ve pulled out key points for quick reading.

For chapters that are still under development, we’ve posted a link to the background ‘Environment Scan’ document created earlier this year as a public brainstorm of relevant themes.

What is the State of Open Data?

Over the last ten months, our fantastic team of authors, reviewers, and contributors have been working to create short summary articles that take stock of the open data landscape in particular communities, across the range of stakeholder groups, across different regions, or in light of key cross-cutting issues. We started with an open brainstorm (environment scans), and have used these to create peer-reviewed chapters, containing examples, case studies, and recommendations for further reading.

The final publication, which is a project of the Open Data for Development Network (OpenData4Development), will be published in early 2019, but in the meantime, we’re making preliminary drafts of many chapters publicly available. We will be posting these drafts over the coming week. In the meantime, you can read our overview of learning so far.

Overview: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

It has been almost ten years since the first high-profile open data initiative broke onto the world stage, and much has changed. Once a niche idea, open data has spent time in the policy mainstream as a tool explored by governments, civil society, and the media to help in solving problems related to governance, innovation, and citizen engagement. Across the world, thousands of communities, businesses and individuals have engaged with newly available datasets, and have worked to secure better quality and more reliable flows of data. Laws have been passed, institutions established, portals built, platforms launched, and impacts measured.

Open data agendas have not only been about data use: they have also opened up space for public discussion about the data infrastructure of the state, and about public-private collaborations that can secure the data needed to make and monitor policy. Across the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, open data innovations have a role to play in supporting research, action, and reporting. The vision that government data should be ‘open by default’ is by no means realised, and in some ways, feels as distant as ever. Yet the many government agencies, cities, and non-profit organisations who now have open data teams or specialists is evidence of the change being brought about.

However, in the last decade, the discourse around data has also changed. Where in 2008, the focus was on the potential of opening up data to empower and to hold the powerful to account, in 2018, there is much greater awareness of the way in which data has been exploited by the powerful, and the complexity of disentangling public and private data. The rise of disinformation and ‘fake news’ has dented the optimism of those who thought open data and data visualisation might support more rational public discourse. And as government attention has shifted from open data to big data, the focus has sometimes moved to the use of black-box algorithms, rather than public and participatory processes, to analyse and use data for the public good. To understand what engagement with, or advocacy for, open data means in this new landscape, requires us to understand the past and present of open data across a whole range of communities, sectors, and stakeholder groups.

In the State of Open Data, we have examined the past and present through sectoral and regional lenses. For each chapter, we’ve sought to identify key events that have shaped engagement with open data — revealing a very mixed picture in terms of the maturity and embeddedness of open data across sectors and regions. To pick up on a few notable cases:

  • In agriculture, government and donor backing has led to a high-profile open data initiative, providing a new framework for long-established information management and data standards projects. Whereas, in work on environmental issues it is harder to identify a coherent ‘open data and environment’ community, although long-established ideas of open science, and consequently open data, provide a foundation for large scale data projects that are using open licences to support global collaboration.
  • In the transparency and accountability field, itself only marginally older than ‘open data’, many initiatives have co-evolved with open data, building open data standards, and securing policy commitments to open data publication. However, there has still been a sense of disconnect between the ‘open data specialists’ and the ‘sector specialists’ with some of the potential of data unrealised, because these groups have not worked close enough together.
  • In the fields of crime and justice (where some of the earliest open data ‘mashups’ were created back in 2005), and telecoms (which underpin the physical infrastructure for open data), there has been surprisingly little open data engagement. Global networks focussing on open data in these sectors are absent or underdeveloped, raising interesting questions about what the catalysts have been for open data engagement in other sectors.

This divergence of progress across sectors and regions presents some real challenges for mapping out the future of work on open data. In some sectors, open data ideas remain on the fringes, or in active conflict with more proprietary approaches to data. Nascent open data communities of practice may need support to articulate what open data is and what it can bring. Linking into a wider open data movement may offer access to the learning and encouragement that they need. By contrast, in sectors where open data ideas are more established, there is a need to further embed open data practitioners within disciplinary professional communities, making sure open data acts as a tool in service of broader goals.

In the State of Open Data report, we are also surveying a range of cross-cutting issues, such as gender, indigenous data sovereignty, and privacy. These also present interesting challenges. Each of the authors for these chapters calls for a more critical approach to openness, recognising that in situations of unequal opportunity and power and in light of historical injustices, opening data does not necessarily lead us closer to the right outcomes. Does this mean that work on open data must shift to become just one part of a wider ‘data justice’ agenda? Or is there still a distinct field of open data, acting as a meeting place for groups from government, civil society, the private sector, and the media, with divergent ultimate goals but with a shared interest in building more open data infrastructures? The answer should inform our strategies for addressing issues of discrimination and justice: identifying how far to strategically invest in capacity building with select communities vs. investing in the critical shaping and openness of the data infrastructures these communities will rely on.

As we look toward the next ten years of open data, what can we expect from the different stakeholder groups who have been instrumental over the past? Donors have the opportunity to take their learning from programmatic investments over the last decade in order to explore more collaborative ways to support the cross-cutting public goods which are hard for any one project or organization to address. Journalists have had a relatively short time within which to find the sustainability models for data journalism, and to work out a template for deploying data journalism to address the current crisis of public trust. And the private sector, particularly SMEs, need to better tap the open data resources that have become available in recent years.

We cannot pretend that State of Open Data chapters paint a picture of an easy road ahead, but they do show a vast breadth of work that can be built upon. As our agriculture chapter states: “The seeds are sown for growth of open data … but as yet, the harvest of impacts is limited.” Although an open future is far from guaranteed, we do see a pattern of projects that are beginning to prove the potential, closing the gap between what’s theoretically possible and what is actually being done in practice and at scale. We hope the chapter drafts and summaries we are sharing now will provide inspiration and fuel for the debate at IODC on shaping and securing the future of open data.

If you want to learn more about the project or contribute to our research, join our sessions at IODC!

  • On Thursday, September 27th between 11am-12pm, we will host a talk show with some of our authors to discuss the main findings of the report and answer your questions. See more information on Sched
  • On Friday, September 28th, between 11am-12pm, we have a workshop where we will look at our environment scans and our chapters to see where the gaps are, what are the challenges and where are the opportunities. Come and help us gather information and you might learn about new projects as well. See more on Sched.