Open data: think local, act local

  • The king has decided! 5,000 municipalities are going open data in early 2017. Guess where…
  • Hmmm.
  • Let me give you a hint: it's in Europe…
  • Hmmm, a king in Europe… Spain?!?
  • Nope.
  • France?
  • Yes, precisely!

France might not have a king anymore, but when the central government adopted a Bill for a Digital Republic last September, it sealed an almost absolutist deal with open data. All municipalities in France of 3,500 and more will have to comply with the law requesting them to open their public data. According to Jean-Marie Bourgogne of civil society group Open Data France, 40 million people will be affected by this legislative change. "Vive le roi !," as they say.

TOP DOWN OPEN DATA FOR ALL

But how will the municipalities do it? How can they generate, organise and publish their data in such a short period of time. The French thought about that one and are rolling out a national programme to help municipalities get started with an initial amount of standardised datasets. The French state receives data from all municipalities year in, year out. All the central state needs to do in the next few months is to serve this data back to the municipalities, this time in a formatted manner. Recycling it is, and recycling works.

While France is rolling out an open data offensive top-down, it remains to be seen if local municipalities will actually warm up to voluntarily opening data in areas not prescribed by law.

BOTTOM UP OPEN DATA FOR THE FEW

The case of the United Kingdom is entirely different, as the government is pursuing an incentive-based approach. No obligation, no law. Just a programme through which £2.64 million in grant funding is channelled to local administrations releasing public data. One of the UK government's websites offers a window on 33 projects by municipalities funded with the support of this incentive programme between 2013 and 2015.

For each entry: a brief description and an evaluation report. City of York Council, for instance, has received £70,000 for a project releasing data about services by the York Family Information Service. The project included a website and a widget platform to allow technical and non-technical reuse of the data, under UK's Open Government License.

Interestingly, many of the municipalities in the UK scheme have developed tools, which in turn can be used by other municipalities. It is still too early to say whether the new French impulse will also end up generating open access tools.

THE IMPORTANCE OF OPEN DATA AT THE LOCAL LEVEL

In order to understand the importance of open data at the local level, one has to turn to the developing world, where most citizens still live in the rural area. In a post released in August 2015, Michael Cañares, the Regional Research Manager for Asia at the of the Open Data Lab Jakarta, explains why. In his latest research report, co-authored by Satyarupa Shekhar, he finds that "particularly in decentralised countries, the local level is where data is collected and stored," he finds. Now to achieve results "local governments need to overcome the same hurdles as those mentioned […] for open data initiatives [in the developing world]: weak legal and policy frameworks, poor data quality, poor connectivity and lack of technical skills." There are ways to deal with that, the authors argue, amongst other by fostering local administration to partner with civil society organisations. For the full report, click here.

Not only in the developing world is data much more granular at the local level. A look at the open data portal for the City of Salford - a city and metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester, England - reveals how detailed information can get. The map of all city street lights is particularly striking. On Open Barnet, the data portal for the London Borough of Barnet, citizens can even edit street maps to add features. But they can also get the detail on travel expenses by city council members. This level of detail helps making local governments more accountable and aware that they are operating in the public gaze.

THE RISE OF CIVIC TECH

In other instances, some citizens come up with platforms that specialise on using open data for social change at the local level. This ist he case an older initiative in Frankfurt, where citizens are encouraged to write what they want to see fixed. Getting back to lighting for a second, here's an example [in German] where a user wants a pedestrian traffic light to react when a button is pushed. Although these fix-my-street type projects can be achieved without open data, at least to a certain extent, they only really start making most sense with a wealth of granular and reusable data.

The impact of such civic tech services is present at the regional and national level too: see the very successful FragDenStaat portal for a good example [in German]. The projects at the local level outnumber their national counterparts by far and have a track record of getting citizens involved in a more sustainable manner. Over the years, this has resulted in the professionalisation of civic tech, to the point where non-profits such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology in the US (Chicago and San Francisco) systematically gather "coders, designers, and developers with community leaders and representatives to solve neighborhood problems".

Over the course of the last decade, the multiplication of local tech initiatives from the grassroots, coupled with the upsurge in open data releases by local governments, have managed to improve living conditions in municipalities and keeping local authorities in check. This said, and despite all the positive developments, the question remains as to how to get a critical mass of communities to engage creatively with open data. What way is the more promising, the French or the British, or as combination of the two? The bets are open.


Frédéric Dubois is a journalist based in Berlin. He is the Managing editor of Internet Policy Review, an open access journal on internet regulation - published by the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. He writes about the internet governance, new media, & open data. Frédéric is the co-editor of two books on media & journalism, as well as author & producer of award-winning interactive features. On Twitter: @fredericdubois