A revised version of this article will appear in the United Nations’ Internal Voices.
Over the past few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of government open data websites. These sites not only publish large volumes of government data and make it accessible for public download, but they also facilitate access through interactive search and browsing capabilities, simple navigation systems and outreach strategies. While some have expressed optimism as to the potential of government open data, others have been more hesitant, calling for the development of appropriate evaluation tools.
The United States, led by former Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, has been a leader in the open data movement, particularly through its index for government data stored on hundreds of other US government websites – Data.gov.
The initiative followed United States President Barack Obama’s publicly available Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, in which he outlined the three objectives of his administration’s Open Government Directive – transparency, participation and collaboration. A frontrunner in technologies facilitating open government, Data.gov allows citizens to download the data and create novel data mashups. The website has the potential not only to facilitate government-to-government and government-to-citizen communications, but also to foster citizen-led technological innovation.
The United Nations is also a leader in open data practices. The United Nations Development Programme, for example, has for many years provided data on the Human Development Index. Various UN agencies, such as the World Health Organization and the International Telecommunications Union, provide country-level and aggregate data on the themes that they are tracking, such as child mortality and Internet penetration rates.
There have also been many efforts to provide data on the progress and high-level commitments to the Millennium Development Goals. But why are these initiatives important?
Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently talked about the importance of holding UN member countries accountable for their commitments to the Millennium Development Goals, saying: “We cannot afford to leave the poor event further behind.” His comments are reminiscent of those of United Nations Declaration of Human Rights principal drafter John Humphrey, who wrote in 1974: “It seems to me that in so far as human rights is concerned, a solution has been found in what may be called the organization of shame. Most governments, including international governments, are sensitive to world public opinion.”
At stake, therefore, might be important UN objectives: peace-building, social progress and the enhancement of living standards and human rights worldwide.
Three individuals who have greatly contributed to the open government policy debates in the United States are Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, Beth Novek and Vivek Kundra. In its Sunlight Agenda 2010, the Sunlight Foundation notes that transparency fosters civic participation and that a key feature of this transparency is access to and accessibility of information. Miller states that: “core to the President’s campaign for government transparency is the use of technology in ways that redefine what ‘public information’ means – that is online information, information that is as easily searchable as it is easily accessible”. She also adds that a key feature of the Data.gov website is the capacity it gives to citizens to create aggregate data that affects their daily lives and increase their civic participation.
In a similar vein, Noveck has written extensively on the benefits of open data technology for democracy. Her main claim is that online technologies have provided the opportunity for collaborative governance and innovation, one in which citizens participate through distributed, open source channels.
Finally, Kundra is widely considered to be the initiator of the American open data system at a national level. In public appearances and government reports, he makes it clear that his priority is “to create a runway, a platform for innovation”. Like Noveck, he values giving citizens the tools for innovation in technology and participation in policy. In doing so, he places emphasis on the quality of the platform and the data it hosts.
However, the impact of open data initiatives still remains to be determined. How does one evaluate the success of open data websites to reach national and international objectives?
The academic approach often leads to ethnographic case studies that are time and resource intensive and require a high level of access to the development team and the website users. On the other hand, practitioners tend to use website analytics, that are useful when it comes to tracking visitors and producing reports, but that can’t take into account the greater social objectives of the technologies. This divide between academics and practitioners points to the need for greater collaboration between them, and for a middle ground between qualitative and quantitative evaluation methods.
The United Nations, with its global reach and access to extensive amounts of qualitative and quantitative data, can take a lead in evaluating the effectiveness of open data website development. It can determine new guidelines for the type of data that should be published, the timing for its publication and the appropriateness of different user interfaces. An in-depth examination of the impact of open data websites on international objectives has the potential to provide insights that could have a lasting effect on accountability, efficiency and public engagement worldwide.