“Open data is the currency of transparency”, says Antonio Acuña, Head of the Data.gov.uk

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.

Anthony Simon: The greatest challenges are for our communication to remain relevant, interesting and useful

The Government of the United Kingdom has revolutionised the way it communicates online. In only a few years a single government domain was launched, GOV.UK, and the use of social media for communicating news and information about the Cabinet’s activity transformed.

Other governments around Europe, including from Romania, are looking at effective use of social media for communicating key Government messages to different types of audiences, both internally and externally, and are keen to learn.

After having Sean Larkins (@SeanLarkins1), Deputy Director of Government Communications at the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office for an interview on government communications from a strategic perspective, now we have a special interview focusing on the digital aspect of government communications.

Anthony Simon(@anthonysimon), Head of Digital Communications (@ukgovcomms) for 10 Downing Street (@number10gov) and the UK Cabinet Office(@cabinetofficeuk), was open to share with us his thoughts on the challenges and benefits of the digital medium for public administration in general, and on the success story of the British Government.

1. How do you see the evolution of the social media engagement of 10 Downing Street and the UK Cabinet Office in the last few years?

We have made some considerable changes to social media engagement. We’ve created  content which is more interesting, such as by using graphics and photos. This has had the result that our content has been shared more frequently than ever before.

We’ve also done more to encourage our public servants to use social media to engage with the public. We can no longer be seen as faceless bureaucrats; we need to be listening, contributing and interacting with the people we serve. But we do it in a supportive environment, providing social media guidelines, so our staff have a better understanding of the benefits and risk of this approach.

2. What were the greatest challenges for the transition of Government communication into the digital age to be successful? And were the benefits of using digital channels for your institution’s communication?

The greatest challenges are for our communication to remain relevant, interesting and useful. A few years ago, we were not doing well against any of those points. The UK Government used to have hundreds of separate websites, which only served to confuse the user. We now have a single website for UK Government (GOV.UK). This provides a single place for all government content, services and transactions. It leads to a more seamless experience and means users get the information they need more quickly. Digital channels are now frequently the place where people go to first to get information. Government has risen to the challenge of using social media and websites to reach our audiences. The main challenges have been to ensure that our communicators are prepared for the digital age. In late 2013, we carried out a capability review of our digital communication. A panel of external experts told us that whilst government was doing better at digital communication; this was offset by the capability of our audiences rising at an even faster rate. We are now giving our communicators the support, guidance and training they need to improve their skills further.

3. What do you consider to be the three events, offline or online, during/for which the social media presence had a significant impact?

We have been part of several events which we have given a major boost with our digital presence. They include:

– London Olympics, 2012 – Government had its specialist comms unit responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the Games from a government perspective. This included a social media team who responded to questions from the media and public.

– G8 Summit, Northern Ireland 2013 – Cabinet Office and Downing Street led a social media team from the event. It had the objective in engaging with NGOs and charities – and it also achieved in its goal in making it the most talked about G8 summit online in history.

– NATO Summit, Wales 2014 – Cabinet Office and Downing Street were integrated into the main comms operation. Again, it achieved its ambition of being the most talked about NATO summit online in history.

4. How important do you consider having and regularly updating a social media strategy for Government communication? How did the social media policy take shape and what type of messages, post or replies determine a greater engagement from the accounts you and your team manage?

The strategy is deliberately uncomplicated to make it as accessible as possible for all staff. The social media policy was developed in collaboration with colleagues across government, including Government Digital Service, Human Resources and Propriety and Ethics. The extent to which the level of engagement takes place is the responsibility for the department or team that runs it.

5. What do you think is the impact of digital communication on the relationship with traditional media? Is mainstream media following and using your digital accounts to get their information?

We are definitely now using social media to shape the traditional news agenda. There are now many announcements made that go via a digital first. For example, when the Prime Minister announces new ministers, the announcements are now made via the @Number10gov account. This reaches nearly 3 million accounts, rather than just a narrow group of stakeholders.

6. What is, in your opinion, the next frontier for Government communication on social media? And what does 2015 bring in terms of opportunities for 10 Downing Street and the UK Cabinet Office?

Visualisation will probably be the main theme for 2015. It’s about creating content which is engaging and visually interesting. This is often difficult to get right, but when done properly it really drives up levels of engagement. This is the next frontier but also a strong opportunity for us during the year.

7. What is, in your opinion, the single most important factor for any Government communication, including that of Romania, to be effective on social media?

I would say that it’s all about the content. Remember on social media that Government is competing for space on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds with their friends and other high profile accounts. Our content needs to be interesting, reliable and of the highest quality.


The Forrester Research report, Facebook news and Neal Schaffer’s opinion

Today we invited Maria Borteanu to tell us more about the recent changes to Facebook’s algorithms and what is Neal Schaffer’s view on the matter. Maria is one of the organisers of a conference which brings Neal to Bucharest in February, and DigitalDiplomacy.ro is one of the partners of the event.  

Since last year, marketing professionals have been in high alert due to the reduction in organic reach of the promotional posts of brands, just one of the changes announced by Facebook to its algorithms.

As a result of Facebook’s announcement, Forrester Research published in November 2014 a report called ‘Social Relationship Strategies That Work’ , which advised professionals to stop using Facebook if they wish to build meaningful social media connections with their clients. At the time, Facebook did not comment on the findings of the report nor on their claim.

Read Neal Schaffer’s opinion on the matter [RO].

Neal is a reputed social media speaker, author and creator of a successful platform for resources about digital communication for business  Maximise Your Social, professor at ‘Rutgers University Mini Social Media MBA Programme’. Neal is also amongst the top 5 sales influencers and amongst the top 50 most powerful social media influencers, according by a Forbes Top. 

Neal is coming to Bucharest, Romania on February 25 for a conference and workshop called ‘Maximizing Social Media for Professionals and Businesses‘. DigitalDiplomacy is one of the partners of the event.

Maria Borteanu

Project Lead
Marketing & Business Development Manager
Digital Experts Hub

GoingAbroad – the free European Road Safety mobile app

I recently discovered a very useful mobile app that was launched a few months ago by the European Commission and which is addressed to all those who travel by car in EU countries.

The app, called GoingAbroad contains all important road safety rules across the EU, as well as interesting information, so that citizens can travel safely and knowingly on European roads. 

Therefore, if you are planning a trip abroad by car this year or if you are considering renting a car for your trips around Europe, then download the GoingAbroad app.

Have a safe and pleasant trip! And do visit Romania :)