How should governments educate agencies about open data?

Australia now has eight whole-of-jurisdiction open data catalogues at state and federal level, alongside agency-based repositories such as at the ABS and Geosciences Australia.

There’s now a recommendation, if not a clear mandate, that agencies release data in some kind of open form – although machine-readable data remains limited and some agencies have attempted to develop their own copyright processes rather than using a pre-existing scheme such as Creative Commons (the standard to by Attorney-Generals several years ago and implemented as default in several jurisdictions).

However the quantity of data released remains low – as does the quality and context around much of the data that has been released. Agencies still resist calls to release data, with some requiring FOI requests to prompt them rather than proactively provide data to the public for reuse.

While a growing group of public servants at both senior and junior levels are becoming more aware of open data, there is often still a low level of awareness about what open data means, why it is important, what agencies have been requested to do and what this means in practice.

This isn’t an issue unique to Australia, it is a challenge in every jurisdiction releasing open data around the world – over 300 of them.

Fortunately some jurisdictions have recognised this issue and taken steps to address it.

A great example is the City of Philadelphia in the United States of America.

Philadelphia had been an early entry into the open data space, originally releasing its GIS (Geographic information system) data free to the public in 2001, long before the open data movement gained steam.

However they had lost steam by 2009, with other city, state and national governments moving forward with their own open data sites. As the city was in the midst of the GFC and couldn’t afford to develop its own open data presence, it worked with a group of open data advocates and companies, who had an interest in accessing and using the data – particularly with Azavea, a data visualisation company.

The resulting site, OpenDataPhilly, is still a great example of a very usable open data site and the City has used it effectively to expose much of the data it already had made public and build on this with additional data.

However, like other jurisdictions, the City of Philadelphia struck the same issue in terms of many public servants not understanding the value or importance of open data. While I can’t speak specifically for the City of Philadelphia’s experience, this issue can lead to the gradual decay of open data sites, with few new datasets added, old data not being updated and data that is released not having been collected in ways designed to simplify and reduce the cost of publishing.

As a result, two years after launching OpenDataPhilly, the City’s government has released the Open Data Guidebook, designed to provide practical guidance to City of Philadelphia departments and agencies on the release of open data to the public.

Released as a work-in-progress Google Doc and subject to regular updates, the Open Data Guidebook is an excellent guide for any jurisdiction seeking to increase internal awareness and understanding of open data and its value to government and the community.

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