Open data has great potential to create transparency in government and boost the economy. But how to tackle the challenges, such as prioritization and data privacy?

Open data means data which should be freely available for everyone to use and republish as they wish. In the context of e-governance this means data collected by the government which should be machine-processable, accessible to anyone over the internet and free to use for both personal and commercial use. For example, data from different governmental databases (e.g. weather, road conditions, traffic jams) should be available to the private sector with the goal of building logistics applications.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is heading the European Union’s cloud computing council and Estonia is running several pilot projects show how open data can have a positive impact on both democracy and the economy – but there are many challenges which need to be solved as well.

Why Bother Opening up Data?

Open data can have a huge impact on economy – a recent study by the European Union shows that the total market for public sector data in 2008 was 28€ billion euros. Opening up data for use and republishing could potentially bring up to 140 billion additional euros into the EU27 economy.

However, positive economic influence is not the only reason why governments should consider giving access to data which they control. Simplifying information which the government already has can also bring citizens closer to politicians, increase involvement in democracy and create transparency in the public sector.

Estonia has piloted three open data initiatives which put this theory to the test – Meieraha (an easy overview of the country’s budget), Valitsemise Valvurid (a system which tracks election promises given) and Riigipilv (a comprehensive database of local authority spending). So what is the reasoning for creating such kinds of projects?

Complicated Spreadsheets Made Simple

Hille Hinsberg from the PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies is one of the people responsible for creating Meieraha and Valitsemise Valvurid. The Meieraha solution, created during a Garage48 hackathon, has already been exported to Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. She outlines several benefits for creating such open data solutions which benefit citizens, politicians, public sector workers and private companies alike.

“If we take Meieraha, the main value is giving users a simple intuitive way with which to track government spending, prioritization and budget allocations. The national budget is divided between many ministries which might be responsible for different parts of the same field of life, for example healthcare. With the help of open data, we can create a much easier way for citizens to understand where exactly the budget is spent. Our goal is to give people as much information as possible in a clear to understand manner so that they can make better decisions,” says Hinsberg.

Fiscal data used in the Riigipilv solution has been available to users for a long time but compiling everything together in one place has at least two huge benefits. Firstly, it reduces the need for public sector workers to waste time on helping people find the data which they need. Secondly, giving everyone access means there is a higher chance that mistakes in the actual data itself which otherwise might go unnoticed can be corrected.

Open data can also be a growth platform for custom solutions which generate additional revenue into the economy – for example, services built by private companies whose offering relies on governmental data. Within the public sector, it enables different entities such as ministries to see what data other ministries have. If one department has statistics on healthcare and the other one on health insurance, the added value of combining this knowledge from two databases can be tremendous.

One problem is that the amount of data available from the government is tremendous. Hille Hinsberg sees a clear need for prioritization: “There’s a difference between need-to-have and nice-to-have data. If we put effort into creating a platform which shows how many and what type of fish live in which lakes, it might not be that beneficial. However, if we give access to anonymous and aggregated health statistics, then for example the insurance sector could have huge gains. Open data has to be a public-private partnership – on one hand, governments need to be willing to provide the data, but on the other hand, citizens and companies need to let the government know which data they need.”

Praxis is currently working together with Transparency International Estonia to create a solution based on open data which makes it easy to get an overview of how politicians voted into the Estonian Parliament are casting their votes. Solutions such as these provide citizens powerful tools with which to keep an eye on their government. “This isn’t something that politicians should be afraid of – it provides a strong incentive to make decisions in a transparent way, which can only be a positive thing,” says Hille Hinsberg from Praxis.

How About Data Protection?

Making government data accessible to everyone also includes several critical points – the most important of them being privacy and protection of sensitive personal data. For example, this includes places of residence and health records. Open data creates a problem called the “jigsaw effect” which needs to be addressed before any step towards releasing information can be made.

The jigsaw effect describes a situation where compiling information from different databases can enable the identification of specific individuals. Within one country this might not be an issue since entities such as the Estonian Data Protection Inspectorate oversee activities related to public sector data. However, there are some challenges when open data becomes international.

Viljar Peep, head of the Estonian Data Protection Inspectorate explains: “Special category data or “sensitive data” is clearly defined within the OECD. However, data which might be considered private in one country may not qualify as such in another country. A good example is the United Kingdom, where searching for real estate owners by name is acceptable in Scotland, but not in England where it is considered an invasion of privacy. Another example is social security codes and other personal identification codes – some countries have these for all citizens, others have completely forbidden it. The public sector is quite colorful in this aspect and there are a lot of challenges which we are currently tackling.”

One method of ensuring that “sensitive” data is not leaked is built-in tracing solutions. In Estonia, all inquiries made into limited access databases are based on identification with the national ID-card and the inquiries are recorded. All citizens can ask public institutions which information has been collected about them and who has accessed it. This does not solve the “jigsaw effect” problem in whole, but still provides confidence that data is not mishandled or opened up to the public without any prior consent.

Source: Creating a Transparent Society with Open Data 04.12.2012, E-estonia