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Why Public Agencies Struggle With Being Open With Your Data

I recently had a great conversation with a public agency that has bitten the bullet and is re-writing a major geographical system they use to share information. They are re-writing the system to incorporate open standards, both in functionality and data.

This use of open data standards means that you and I will, in the future, be able to grab the data and mash it up using other standards based services. Of course neither you, I nor the agency can predict quite how the data may be used and what amazing insights might be gleaned for the good of New Zealand.

However, internally the agency is having a struggle with letting go of the information. It is a struggle I suspect a lot of government (both nationally and locally), NGO's and community agencies struggle with.

In essence the argument is thus:
  1. We gained some money to collect and process this data
  2. If we give the data away it may be used by others to generate value
  3. If we don't generate business value ($) from the data we won't get money to support the data
  4. The money stops
  5. We stop supplying the data (or enhancing it as demand grows)
And so agencies start to refer to it as, "Our data!" ... because "We paid for it!"
Of course the government agency didn't pay for it, you and I did.

I propose the close the loop by shifting the "business value" being represented by the almighty $ to it being represetned as "value to the community".

How's this:
  1. We asked for some money to collect/process this data
  2. We give the data away it and it is used by others to generate value
  3. We collect that value in high profile stories
  4. The value to the community is shown
  5. The money continues
  6. We supplying the data (and enhance it as demand grows)
In essence close the feedback loop.

If this agency places data out for all to use they can either close the loop by charging you for it OR by monitoring it's usage and publicising the great work it has enabled. The bosses then have a case for continuing the supply of data and even getting more out there.

And it becomes open data - "Our data".

If you believe this approach to be too simplistic then I urge you to check out the UK Government initiative "Show Us a Better Way" with a simple question:
What would you create with public information?

Ever been frustrated that you can't find out something that ought to be easy to find? Ever been baffled by league tables or 'performance indicators'? Do you think that better use of public information could improve health, education, justice or society at large?

The UK Government wants to hear your ideas for new products that could improve the way public information is communicated. The Power of Information Taskforce is running a competition on the Government's behalf, and we have a £20,000 prize fund to develop the best ideas to the next level. You can see the type of thing we are are looking for here.

To show they are serious, the Government is making available gigabytes of new or previously invisible public information especially for people to use in this competition. Rest assured, this competition does not include personal information about people.

We're confident that you'll have more and better ideas than we ever will. You don't have to have any technical knowledge, nor any money, just a good idea, and 5 minutes spare to enter the competition.

Go on, Show Us A Better Way.

There are also many other initiatives all around the world, here's just a few pointers for you:
And finally check out these excellent posts from Jason Ryan at the The Network of Public Sector Communicators blog: