MyData is taking off in the public sector — what is its impact?

MyData is a model for making the data economy work for the people. Open Knowledge Finland, and particularly the MyData Working Group, can take a good chunk of the credit for formulating MyData as an idea, as well as lobbying others to take it seriously.

Some of the early research on the topic was done in collaboration with the Finnish government. Now the idea has set root not only new data-driven businesses, but also public services. The Finnish state and municipalities are among the first to start giving people access to their own personal data.

The government programme, the document that sets in stone the goals and priorities of Finland’s governing coalition, might not be the most entertaining read, but it does set the direction of new public initiatives and reform in the country’s ministries. Among its numerous instructions stands one clear point about a revaluation of the way that public actors make use of data. It says:

“People’s right to decide about and monitor their personal information will be enhanced, while ensuring the smooth transfer of data between the authorities.”

A single sentence remains a bit ambiguous, but of course there is no shortage of text produced by the government. MyData has featured prominently also in the strategic research commissioned by the Finnish cabinet office, such as the work on the effective use of open data, as well as the study on big data strategy. Finnish ministries have adopted MyData as their official stance when contributing to EU-wide decisions on topics such as the data economy, and municipal governments have also commissioned work on the topic. Those who care to read more technical documents will notice MyData also listed as a principle in the enterprise architecture of the Finnish public IT system.

Slowly but surely, this strategic goal is being translated into action. One technological development that can enable the Finnish public MyData ecosystem is a new, standardised system for transmitting data. The Finnish authorities have been working for a while on a “National Data Exchange Layer” (known as Palveluväylä in Finnish), modelled after Estonia’s X-Road system.

The system achieves something simple but powerful. It creates a shared, interoperable way of sending information from any single system to another. Once in operation, we will not have to do additional work to receive information from any particular system. The data will flow like power in an electricity network: once your appliance has the standard plug to connect it to the network, you are ready to go.

Large reserves of data will soon be connected to this exchange layer. A national law, covering hundreds of different public services, mandates that Finnish public services to begin to connect to it July 2017. Through the apps of suomi.fi, a single interface for many electronic public services, people are already able to log in and see what a handful of the most important public databases say about them. Eventually this will amount to a fairly comprehensive view of what the government knows about an individual.

Once this structure is in place, it’s not an arduous task to fulfil a central part of MyData, the possibility for individual’s to transfer their data and use it in other services to their advantage. What remains to be built is a platform for making the data machine-readable and authorising transfers, what sometimes has been called a MyData-operator.

The interface for doing this was already sketched out in Maankoodauskurssi, a hackathon that brought together Finnish tech companies to work on significant public issues. The government already has plans in place for starting several pilots, allowing some of the more promising data sources to be opened for personal use and other services.

In addition to work done with the Data Exchange Layer, some apps are being developed that are specific to certain service areas. For instance, Koski will pool information about education from schools and universities and support its repurposing. Kanta is not only a personal health record but eventually also a repository for information recorded by individuals themselves.

Open Knowledge Finland is playing a small part in this fundamental shift in the public sector’s data architecture. We are working together with the Finnish cabinet office on a research project that will try define the significance of MyData for public services more precisely, and provide some recommendations.

Our focus is above all on trying to understand the potential benefits of MyData, in particular in changing the practices of public service delivery. We will also try to demonstrate the difference that open standards and good service design can make in building a functional system. Hence the name of the project, “MyData Muutosvoimana”, or “MyData as a change agent”. While the work is on-going, we will be blogging about our favourite ideas — so watch this space!

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