Governments and Open Data Adoption

James Eiloart provides three key considerations for designing systems that will empower citizens to use raw data and turn it into actionable insights, in this article

Leaders throughout history have always sought data to help inform decisions: from the Romans conducting censuses on the empire’s population over two thousand years ago to William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book in 1086 that captured the names of all landowners in England to collect tax.

However, granting the public access to official data is a more modern phenomenon. The population today demands data about a range of subjects, such as education and healthcare, in order to analyse the information, draw their own conclusions, and ultimately make decisions. This is called open data.

But many governmental organisations still struggle with best practices for utilising and sharing data with citizens. As public bodies today face an electorate that expects transparency, they must consider the best ways of achieving open access.

The three key considerations:

Deciding on the most relevant data sets

A risk of publishing open data sources is that its value could be lost within large and unorganised datasets. It’s important that governmental organisations create systems that enable businesses and individuals to quickly and easily select the most relevant datasets and the most meaningful metrics for what they need. For example, travel companies may base vital business decisions on the ONS tourism data or parents decide their children’s school options on nationally published exam results. Here, data has a real impact on citizens.

For more powerful and even more relevant insights, users should be able to combine multiple data sets. Pairing and comparing data sets allows citizens to have a better understanding of complex issues in more depth as well as opening up the possibility of uncovering previously unknown issues and correlations.

Turn to interactive data

Public sector organisations tend to give access to data via reports and spreadsheets. In these formats, open data does not lend itself well to public consumption or understanding, never mind offer insights. Luckily, since the days of the Doomsday Book, technology has progressed so that data analytics is both fast and user-friendly.

With interactive dashboards, data comes alive. Citizens can visually explore, understand and interact with it and not passively view it.

Dashboards also allow citizens who are not naturally skilled in data analysis to work with it. With open data, this is vital otherwise the benefits from data exploration is concentrated in the hands of the few rather than the many. Open data is only democratised when universally accessible and interactive.

Bolster public trust in open data

Open data can be accessed, reused and redistributed by anyone – which leads to several challenges and threats, for example, privacy and security issues or content misuse. For these reasons, the public should not be permitted access to all data. Sensitive data, like healthcare records or tax information, should be withheld.

It’s essential for trust that safe and secure data governance processes and system are in place. Governments need to decide what should be public and strike a balance between transparency and safety. Keeping citizens up-to-date with security controls, providing regular updates and managing data risks are key to maintaining public trust.

The aim of an open data era should also be to build ecosystems consisting of data advocates, producers and users. Governments should be using platforms that allow, not just the consumption of data, but for citizens to contribute and create connections via the sharing of data-backed ideas and feedback.

Data for the people

As it has always done throughout history, data will undoubtedly play a huge role in government and policy-making now and in the future. To empower citizens to engage with data in a meaningful way and create positive change, governments must embrace the era of open data.


James Eiloart



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