To mark the International Day of Open Data, the Coalition for Open Data and the Government of Romania (through its very active Department for Online Services and Design) and other partners organized the first ever international conference on Open Data and their impact on business, culture, justice or other sections of society.
The conference panels included speakers from both Romania and abroad, amongst which Antonio Acuña, the Head of the Data.gov.uk – UK’s portal for open data.
Antonio agreed to talk to the DigitalDiplomacy.ro team about his team’s work on open data, about the UK’s commitment to the Open Data Partnership and the benefits he sees for citizens.
You cannot be transparent as a government without opening your data
When has the UK started thinking about opening its data and why? What do you think are the benefits of such an initiative?
The open data process started around 4 years ago and the main government interest of members of the government at that time revolved around raw data and how to use it. Data.gov.uk came out of that interest and initiative.
Why has the UK taken interest in this subject? The reason is obvious – you cannot be transparent as a government without opening your data. Open data is the currency of transparency. There is a trick here – if a citizen asked the government to be transparent and we would for instance open up the state budget and say we are open, but we would do so in a format which requires us to buy a certain software to read it, then that is not transparent. The format needs to be accessible by everyone.
The UK wants to be the most transparent government in the world and open data is an enabler of that. Data.gov.uk is the means to surface a lot of official information. Another reason why we support open data is because we believe that we as a government are terrible at reusing data. We would duplicate things – for instance one department would do a study and then another government department would decide to do something similar and would, therefore, spend money, waste money. The idea here is awareness of data – the data already exists, re-use it effectively.
What kind of data one can find on Data.Gov.uk?
We currently have around 20,000 data sets available on the portal and they are incredibly diverse – everything from military stations, traffic, air quality to salinity of lakes or police information.
How is your department positioned within the government?
We have a team called Transparency and Open Data Team. We sit in the Cabinet Office, so we oversee how the government runs the project and we have direct relations with the departments – we work with them directly to make sure they understand correctly open data and how to use it. Also, each department has its own people (Open Data Champions) who have responsibility to keep pushing for that institution to open its data to the public. We have about 1,300 government entities publishing on data.gov.uk. And we have, for instance, small institutions such as small, local hospitals or other types of local agencies – so the project has gone beyond the central administration.
What sort of projects came out of the data opened up on Data.Gov.UK? What is the direct benefit from the citizen?
We have about 389 applications that have been created based on data available on data.gov.uk. For instance we have applications in the real estate market – there is one application which can help citizens identify a house based on a number of criteria, such as price range, distance from train station, vicinity to a good school with very good math classes and so on – so a citizen can use this type of application to search for a home which matches its criteria. It’s about the service it provides.
Another example of a very practical application – lamp posts. As you know, lamp posts break so we would have streets wich are not lighted properly at night. Say I am a citizen and I am walking home from work – I would use this app to find a safe route home, with lamp posts that work. I would insert my current location and the location I want to reach and the app would return a safe route. Simple things which can make a difference.
Technology facilitates people to access data
How do you see the technological progress? Would this influence the way governments open up their data?
For sure, but not in the sense that data should be impacted, but more about how the data will be used. Technology gives us more opportunities to use the raw data which any public institution owns. Technology facilitates people to access data. It’s as simple as that.
Open data is a bit like electricity. We don’t care about it, we only care about the service it provides
Romania is at the beginning of the process to open up its data. Would you have any advice for the authorities here?
My advice would be simple: it always looks worse than it is! Just publish. Even if it’s a scan of a piece of paper, put it out there. Of course this would not be ideal, but you are at least starting to give access to data. It’s a start. Then needs to come the conversation – I am sure the public will force you to have a conversation on this, on the need to make information, data available. But as a general rule – Don’t break the habit of publishing.
Open data is a bit like electricity. People don’t care about open data, but we care about the services it provides. We don’t care about the electricity company, about what they do or how they create electricity, we just care that when we turn on the light, it works. The same way, developers will do things, institutions will offer services and a few citizens will use the data provided. The sure thing is that the citizens will always care that data is there. I may not care about the data, but if I were to want to know more about it, it’s there. This is important.
Antonio Acuna is Head of Data.gov.uk, a UK Government project aimed to make available non-personal UK government data as open data. It was launched in closed beta in September 2009 and publicly launched in January 2010. As of February 2015 it contained over 19,343 data sets.
If you are wondering what exactly are open data, it is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share alike (OpenDefinition.org). The principles usually underlying this type of data are: they can be processed automatically, they are offered in an open format which is not controlled by any entity and benefits from an open license, which means that it can be used freely, including for commercial gains.
In 2013, 17 ministries in Romania appointed people responsible for reviewing available date and publishing them in an open format. This led to the set up of the data.gov.ro portal, a centralized website where any Romanian citizen can find information about the activity and data of ministries, agencies and other public authorities. As an example, one can find information about Romanian military participation in international missions, a national catalog for prices of medicine which are authorized to be sold on the market and even the status of hospitals and clinics and number of bed available in a given county.