State guts get glass walls

20 February 2014

Long time ago, Estonian state promised to make more of its public information accessible in machine-readable form. Even so, for lack of funds, the project stalled in 2012–2013. Now, attempts have begun to get the transparency thing rolling again.

Open data is information, freely accessible over the Internet, in machine-readable form, with no limitation on use applied. The significance of availability of state information in machine-readable form may be explained by an example from the past.

Disclose the party members

Today, anybody may obtain political party membership lists from the commercial register. Using a web application, it’s possible to find out whether a person belongs to a party, or has been in earlier times. A mere decade ago, an option like this didn’t exist. Only in 2002 were the party-lists made public. Back then, Ministry of Justice published them as scanned PDF-files, which could indeed be read and downloaded into personal computers, but the data contained therein could not be processed statistically.

At that, then Postimees executive editor Toomas Mattson undertook a huge project: to publish, in the newspaper, membership-lists of all parties. He had to toil hard and sweat a lot; it took him weeks on end to acquire all lists in processable form – as Excel tables. The ministry helped a bit, the parties helped a bit, and finally, stuck in the paper Postimees, there appeared in print a 20-page project with names of party people.

As the data were processed, it surfaced that over 700 people in Estonian belonged to several parties at the same time; a commune chairman featuring in the list of three. A small party had, without knowledge of the people, entered dozens of school teachers in its membership.

Had the data remained non-machine-readable, such curiosities would been next to impossible to unearth.

For the newspaper, the publishing of the lists brought tremendous feedback. Villu Reiljan, chairman of People’s Union, and its secretary-general, sent Postimees a big basket of chocolate to express gratitude for tidying up the party membership list.

Public Information Act, long in force in Estonia, specifies which data is public and which is not. Even so, Estonian public sector institutions haven’t been under obligation to publish the information in machine-readable form. In the West, in USA for instance, the issue has been thoroughly tackled and the web contains loads of applications for processing state data.

Estonia’s current situation at making data available, and at other transparency-related issues, is laid bare in a report compiled by Hille Hinsberg, governance and civil society expert at Praxis, a think-tank, regarding how Estonia has fulfilled open government partnership programme action plan.

Open Government Partnership (OGP) is an international initiative, joined by Estonia in 2011. As supported by agencies and the voluntary vabakond sector, an OGP action plan was put together in Estonia, its fulfilment now inspected by Ms Hinsberg. The report will also reach international experts.

Turns out, preparations have started to make public data accessible, but a standstill has occurred. In 2012, a so-called green book started to be compiled, containing guidelines for state agencies regarding making data accessible. The green book isn’t ready yet.

A portal containing public information was also prescribed – this is at Still, we have to do with a test version, which has stayed the same for quite a while. There, some test applications are available: a tool called for family budget stress endurance analysis; trip planner; and an application Läbipaistev Eesti Omavalitsus (Transparent Estonian Local Government) The latter was used by Postimees, in run-up to last year’s local elections, to prepare several stories analysing financed in several cities and communes.

According to Uuno Vallner, IT-systems division department head at Ministry of Economic Affairs, the last time this was somewhat diligently worked at was in the end of 2011 and the start of 2012. «A pilot version of public information data gate was created, Public Information Act was complemented with re-use requirement, pilot projects were launched,» listed Mr Vallner. «After that, for almost two years, no money was found to continue what had been started.»

Now, something is again happening. According to Mr Vallner, the green book draft has received hundred-some upgrade proposals; in March, approvals-round is planned for the updated version. This year, the book needs to be ready.

State on palm of hand

According to Mr Vallner, the test application of portal is planned to be «stabilised», and an organisation developing and managing the data store to be created.

Also, it is planned to support, out of EU structural funds money, innovative open data re-use solutions. At the end of March, an informative event for agency heads will take place in Tallinn.

A good example of the kinds of services that can be offered on open data basis is – budget sums visualisation application created by volunteers. There, it can be seen how budget money is being spent and how money comes into the budget.

The application shows the spread of taxes, taken from user’s gross salary, for education, culture, national defence etc, providing a picture of the size of the tax load.

How to increase transparency of governance?

Making data machine-readable

•    The domain’s green book is half finished. As required by Public Information Act, a shift to open data must be performed; it’s not clear how this can be achieved. Creation of open data repository has been frozen for two years, and, over that time, Estonia has fallen behind various countries. The domain’s green book ought to be completed by year’s end. At the moment, it is not clear how local government information would become open data.

Better public service

•  The domain’s green book was completed in 2013. Public service has been thoroughly tidied by Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication. Guidelines for local governments are needed. Work is underway with Road Administration e-service analysis; e-services as application for the right to drive, administration of powers, and changing motor vehicle registration certificates. Road Administration has developed a new self-service environment.

Economic interests register

•    A public electronic register for declarations of economic interests of officials is being created. The work has started, and it has been decided what the register should look like by content and format. A public procurement has been held. At the end of May, it should be possible to file and to publish the initial declarations via the electronic register.

ASBL financing tidied up

•    Instructions for financing have been developed; even so, system for publication of ASBL financing has not been created. This year, development thereof will not start yet. Ministry of Finance is creating a permanent solution for displaying and analysing financial data of local governments. In the future, the solution will also be showing names of transaction partners of local governments. Therewith, ASBL financing could also be made public.

Officials ethics guide

At finance ministry, officialdom ethics council has been created, which will start by compiling principles of remuneration of professional training of officials, to be written down within the first half of the year. The council plans to compile instructions for social-media-behaviour of officials. Instructions prepared by ethics council will be published at the public service website

Sources: OGP independent assessment report 2012–2013, ministries of economy and communication, justice and finance

Source: State guts get glass walls, PM