Ever heard of Politwoops? We bet you have. What you probably don’t know is that in the past four years we’ve saved the tweets politicians tried to delete in almost 40 countries. But when it comes to transparency and unlocking public sector information or open government data, you might want to opt for another tactic.
Lessons from unlocking digital cultural heritage
When we founded the Open Culture Data network in the Netherlands, we learned that even the largest cultural heritage institutions in the Netherlands, such as Rijksmuseum, EYE Film Institute and the National Archives, can be persuaded to unlock their data.
This persuasion can be through assisting them with technical and legal expertise or nurturing a community of developers with data harvests and creation of an app challenge. From this starting point, the Open Culture Data network was easily able to grow with over 30 institutions opening up their cultural data.
A template for local governments?
Working with the central borough of the city of Amsterdam in 2013 in the same manner, we quickly found out how local authorities organize their finances and how they report their financials to the central government. For instance, we discovered that every local government must send a uniform quarterly financial statement to the local statistics office.
We built Openspending — a website that allows users to make comparisons of budgets with actuals across years and quarterly periods. With this tool, we can show what unlocking financial data means and looks like. At the same time, we drafted guidelines on how to approach other governments. With this information and the assistance of some aldermen and a number of civil servants, we were able to approach the other boroughs of Amsterdam.
Everything is a massive undertaking
To us, it was absolutely clear that we would be able to track not only national, regional and local public financial sector information but eventually, we would also be able to relate financial data to policy decisions. However, even a small country such as The Netherlands, with a population of 16 million, consists of 403 municipalities, 12 provinces, 24 water management boards and 11 government departments. And this can mean a lot of data.
For governments to unlock data by themselves, they need, apart from good examples, knowledge on how to release this information. This includes knowledge of freedom of information legislation, local and regional governance, the game of politics (I recommend watching House of Cards) and equipping the community with the right tools and resources.
You really need a bureau
We kept track of our communications with all governments and discovered that a simple question to government entities produces very diverse answers. We collected data by asking civil servants directly while at times we had to consult with aldermen. This implied that building up political support helps to create room for civil servants to collaborate.
You need standardized processes
When aldermen did not respond, council members took the initiative to ask for the data. Citizens and community members who wanted to see their own city data on the platform, submitted FOI requests and when they received it, they later sent us the data. We have avoided sending FOI requests ourselves because we want to keep a sustainable stream of data from political foundations.
In the past few months, we have unlocked financial data from almost 100 local and regional governments. Our plan to open up data and make it available from one place is succeeding. In less than three months, we collected at least 3,915 files, containing 27,405,000 data points. That is one third of all data there is over the past five years.
So, when you’re dealing with decentralized governments or institutions, collecting data is a huge undertaking but not impossible. When you know that there is a target document or a format that is consistent throughout government, it means that getting all the data, allows you to combine and reuse the data on a bulk scale.
We learned that this approach not only works on financial data or a deeper level of detail, but can also work on other types of government data, such as subsidies, local council minutes and motions, research data, cultural heritage archives or any other type of potential open government data. So for example, when we made all 21,850 Dutch government grants awarded by various departments sortable and searchable, we decided to use the same approach to open up local and regional grants.
Even in the absence of proactive open data policies or strong national or local legislation, you need to reconstruct the way you relate with government yourselves. You have diverse means and approaches available to you. Act according to your forecasts and your plans. Then, let it take its course. See what happens. By taking structural note of the outcome, you will have more experience and knowledge to draw upon the next time. Smart advocacy could be as easy as asking a simple question.
Eventually, success depends on what approach triggers what government. Just realize that with a strong community and a mix of technical and political expertises, we all have the ability to hold power to account. The time is now.
Arjan El Fassed is the executive director of Open State Foundation. He is also a former Dutch member of parliament and lead advocacy both at international development agencies such as Oxfam International as well as human rights organizations in the Middle East.
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