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[Spotlight] ‘Open by default’ is the long game

Highlights from ODC’s Implementation Working Group Discussion in July

By Paul Stone, Implementation Working Group Member and former co-chair

Of the six principles in the Open Data Charter (ODC), “Open by Default” is perhaps the most challenging. For some, it can seem like an ultimatum. For some, it is fundamental, the basis for the whole global open data movement.

The ODC Implementation Working Group discussion in July 2021 highlighted some of the different perceptions encountered amongst stakeholders, but it would be fair to say that within the group there was a fairly common understanding of what open by default meant (some articulations have been captured on a JamBoard).

If we examine the ODC principles and their accompanying descriptions we will find that they support the understanding shared by the Implementation Working Group. Reflecting on the principle statements, they can be grouped into three categories.

The What:

  • Open by Default

The Hows:

  • Timely and Comprehensive
  • Accessible and Usable
  • Comparable and Interoperable

The Whys:

  • For Improved Governance & Citizen Engagement
  • For Inclusive Development and Innovation

However, it’s not until you delve into the more detailed information behind the ‘open by default’ statement that you start to understand the intent and you even get a bit of the how. Open data…

“can empower governments, citizens, and civil society and private sector organizations to work toward better outcomes for public services”.

It can achieve this by encouraging more data-informed participation in government decisions.

Open by default “represents a real shift in how government operates and how it interacts with citizens.” The principle goes on to tell us how we can bring about this culture change by suggesting governments…

“Establish a culture of openness, not only through legislative and policy measures, but also with the help of training and awareness programs, tools, guidelines, and communication strategies designed to make government, civil society, and private sector representatives aware of the benefits of open data”

But what about my private data?

People can get anxious about ‘open by default’ when they equate “by default” with “automatic”. But open by default does not mean all data is released automatically. The ODC is quite clear about this by saying:

“We recognize that open data can only be unlocked when citizens are confident that open data will not compromise their right to privacy, and that citizens have the right to influence the collection and use of their own personal data or of data generated as a result of their interactions with governments.”

Open data should only be released after a privacy impact assessment and processing to protect privacy.

“In accordance with privacy legislation and standards, anonymize data prior to its publication, ensuring that sensitive, personally-identifiable data is removed”

‘Open by default’, ‘Open with purpose’ or ‘Open by design’?

Discussions can fall into the trap of debating which of these are best. The reality is all three are important and we should embrace them for different reasons.

Open by default is the long game. It is the desired end state, or norm we are seeking. When our job is done, all government data (that should be) will be open by default.

Open with purpose is a strategy to get some action now. We can leverage an important, emotive problem to accelerate the release of data that could support collaboration to solve it. Not only do you get open data released, but you also gain a real story of impact that people will relate to and explain the value of open data.

Open by design is also a strategy, but with a different purpose. Open by design is a way to implement open by default in the most efficient and sustainable way possible. Open by design needs an organisation to have an open by default mindset in order to impact decisions over the stewardship of data from the outset of its existence. When you are open by design, the release of open data (in open formats, appropriately anonymised, well documented etc.) will be a natural by-product of doing business.

Shifting the powerbase

Some “elevator pitches” on the Jamboard (page 4) express the power and vision of being open by default. Openness…

“de-escalates scarcity [of information] as a source of power.​ It’s about what one does, not what one has.”

“Openness let’s us work together to build a kinder, stronger, more resilient world. (And a more effective one, too!)”

Putting open by default into action can enable better collaboration for better outcomes.

We are taking a break this month, but if you would like to join our next Implementation Working Group in September, please send us an email: info@opendatacharter.org.

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Learn how we are working towards a culture of open and responsible data use by governments and its citizens.

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