G8 Open Data Charter Action Plan: Open data by default, but you may have to pay

Image credit: Flickr Commons

While the G7 (previously G8) countries pledged to make data “open by default” and “usable by all” last summer, many of their open data action plans show hesitations and difficulties to guarantee their data will be free of charge.

Sunlight has been following the development of the G8 Open Data Charter since it was signed. G8 Leaders agreed to follow five open data principles and publish their own national action plans detailing how to implement the Charter. Four countries failed to launch their plans by the deadline of October 2013, and Germany has still yet to release its plan — now nine months delayed.

We examined all available G7 national action plans (plus the EU) and compared them against promises in the Open Data Charter. We scored each plan according to its degree of commitments and whether its promises have linked to any concrete actions. Instead of focusing on absolute scores and ranking of each country, this analysis aims at spotting some stylized trends, best practices and areas for improvements from the G7 open data action plans.

Open by default is taking shape at national level

The first principle of the G8 Open Data Charter is “open data by default.” This principle means “all government data [will] be published openly” unless specified with “legitimate reasons.” Some G7 countries have taken the principle on board and written it into national executive orders (U.S.), mandatory policies (Canada) or even legislations (Italy). However, their counterparts need stronger commitments: The U.K. white paper promises for a “presumption to publish data”; Japan’s plan says the government “shall actively release public data”; while the French plan just promises to “move towards” the open by default principle. We believe a firmer commitment to the principle is an important step to fulfilling proactive disclosure as outlined in our own Open Data Guidelines.

Free-of-charge data is not guaranteed

Image Credit: Flickr / Jason Mrachina

Although the public can expect an increased amount of data to be released by the G7, they may have to pay for the access. Under the principle of “usable by all,” the G8 Charter “recognise[s] that open data should be available free of charge.” However, except for Canada, which promises to review the existing access fees and work to eliminate them in December 2015, most of the G7 fail to make clear commitments in this arena.

The U.S. and Japan make no promises in their action plans. The U.K. admits that there are difficulties for “some organisations” to provide free data, particularly for important datasets which are “not owned by government,” “currently charged for” and whose organizations are “reliant on this revenue.” In the National Information Infrastructure policy paper, the U.K. government states clearly that they have “no current plans for release on a free basis” for some data. And, once again, France only promises to “progress towards the broader cost-free reuse of open data.”

Sunlight stresses the importance for governments to remove as many restrictions for accessing information as possible, especially for royalty and access fees, which can be a huge hurdle for civil societies and individual citizens to re-use data. We also go a long way to explain how technology and proactive release can actually allow government to save costs with open data. The G7 countries should thus take active steps to make data free of charge by default, in order to truly ensure the data is “usable by all.”

Format. Format. Format.

Sunlight has explained (again and again) why releasing comprehensive and raw formats of data are important. It is encouraging to see most G7 countries’ action plans — such as Canada, Japan, the U.K., U.S. and EU — have recognized the importance of machine-readability and making it a mandatory requirement for data that they release. However, promises in the Charter about providing application program interfaces (APIs) and bulk data are not fully realized. Only the U.S. and France are able to mention in their plans that agencies should provide bulk data to the greatest extent possible, while just a few others show strong commitment to require authorities to provide APIs. In addition, as stated in our guidelines, a mandate for using open source solutions, unique identifiers and appropriate model citations are essential to encourage innovative use of data by the public, which is currently not guaranteed by the G8 Charter.

What else is missing? Open data inventories

In our analysis, we found that Canada and the U.K. have decided to establish a comprehensive data inventory of published and unpublished data that is open for the public to access (the U.S. has something similar called EDI which is not public). One of the most common reasons for not releasing data is “we don’t know what data you want.” But without a public list of all information holdings by the government, there are no ways that citizens can demand for the data they need. Even though this is not promised in the G8 Open Data Charter, we believe publishing data inventories is an important milestone for open data that all other countries should follow.

It is thrilling to see the G7 countries take a significant step to commit to high-level principles in transparency and open data, but it is as important for us to track whether such framework has been translated into effective national plans and daily implementation. We also hope that the international community can learn from the G7 experiences and commit to an International Open Data Charter in future.

To learn more about our analysis, the following is our full comparison on all available G7 Open Data Action Plans. You can also click here to view it on a Google spreadsheet.