The international Open Data Charter has emerged from the global open data community as a galvanizing document to place open government data directly in the hands of citizens and organizations. To drive this process forward, and ensure that the outcomes are both systemic and transformational, new open data policy needs to be based on evidence of how and when open data works in practice. To support this work, the GovLab, in collaboration with Omidyar Network, has recently completed research which provides vital evidence of open data projects around the world, including an analysis of 19 in-depth, impact-focused case studies and a key findings paper. All of the research is now available in an eBook published by O’Reilly Media.
The research found that open data is making an impact in four core ways, including:
- Improving Government: Open data is improving government, primarily by tackling corruption and increasing transparency, and enhancing public services and resource allocation.
- Empowering Citizens: Open data is empowering citizens to take control of their lives and demand change by enabling more informed decision making and new forms of social mobilization, both in turn facilitated by new ways of communicating and accessing information.
- Creating Opportunity: Open data is creating new opportunities for citizens and organizations, by fostering innovation and promoting economic growth and job creation.
- Solving Public Problems: Open data is playing an increasingly important role in solving big public problems, primarily by allowing citizens and policymakers access to new forms of data-driven assessment of the problems at hand. It also enables data-driven engagement, producing more targeted interventions and enhanced collaboration.
In all four of these areas, the principles described in the Open Data Charter provide important guidance to policymakers for enabling a vibrant open data community.
Through studying open data projects around the world, the analysis highlighted that current open data initiatives have resulted in wide variety in outcomes. Of the projects that appeared to achieve the most impact, four key enabling conditions were observed:
- Support through partnerships: Intermediaries and data collaboratives play an important role in ensuring success, allowing for enhanced matching of supply and demand of data.
- Existence of public infrastructure: Developing open data as a public infrastructure, open to all, enables wider participation, and a broader impact across issues and sectors.
- Adoption of policies: Clear policies regarding open data, including those promoting regular assessments of open data projects, are also critical for success.
- Clear problem definition: Open data initiatives that have a clear target or problem definition have more impact and are more likely to succeed than those with vaguely worded statements of intent or unclear reasons for existence.
In addition to these enabling conditions, four common challenges were discovered and programs tended to be more effective when practitioners could mitigate these issues. These challenges relate to:
- Readiness: A lack of readiness or capacity (evident, for example, in low Internet penetration or technical literacy rates) can severely limit the impact of open data.
- Responsiveness: Open data projects are significantly more likely to be successful when they remain agile and responsive—adapting, for instance, to user feedback or early indications of success and failure.
- Risks: For all its potential, open data does pose certain risks, notably to privacy and security; a greater, more nuanced understanding of these risks will be necessary to address and mitigate them.
- Resource Allocation: While open data projects can often be launched cheaply, those projects that receive generous, sustained and committed funding have a better chance of success over the medium and long term.
The case studies observed in the research highlight the potential and possibilities offered by the emerging field of open data. However, to realise the true potential of open data it is vital that policy makers and practitioners can move beyond a “points of light” narrative that celebrates individual case studies to a broader narrative about the social, economic and political transformation that could result from a far broader deployment of open data. To facilitate this shift and enable meaningful progress in the field, the report makes ten recommendations (in addition to wide adoption of the Open Data Charter) for policymakers, advocates, users, funders and other stakeholders in the open data community.
Through incorporating these ten recommendations into the development of policy, the true potential of open data can help improve governments, empower citizens, contribute solutions to complex public problems, and create new economic opportunities for companies, individuals and nations.