Realizing the promise of open government

29 March 2012 | Michele Bedford Thistle, Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

In the past few years, governments across the globe have begun to embrace open government, taking decisive steps to proactively share public data with citizens. With public sector organizations increasingly responsible for addressing privacy and security concerns, however, questions still remain about how to make data more open in a way that makes the most sense for constituents. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with my colleague Mark Gayler (who leads Microsoft’s Open Software Initiative) to discuss this highly relevant topic in government.

What was the impetus for the open government movement?

The tipping point and driving force behind open government worldwide has actually been the Obama administration in the U.S. In the early days of his administration, the president had a series of videos on key imperatives like reducing waste—for example, he identified a 30-volume document that was circulated to government agencies every month but never read. In addition to reducing waste, a key objective outlined in this video series dealt with making government data more open and accessible to other government departments, and more importantly, to the public.

The movement has recently been formally ratified through the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which has its next meeting in Brazil in April. The main idea behind this organization is that data that is not sensitive can—and should—be released to create better relationships between government and citizens. Citizens and communities can choose which access mechanism they use, which app they use, etc.

What cities and countries are making open data most accessible, useful?

One great example is Washington, DC, which pioneered the first open data catalogue and publishing of data for use by local municipalities. They’ve published pretty much every piece of data that they have, including budget, crime, and transit data. Another city example is the City of Regina in Canada. They recently published an Open Government policy that included a commitment to innovative use of technology - ‘New technologies offer opportunities for improved information sharing, public participation, and collaboration.’ Cities like Berlin, Paris, London, Vienna, and Rome are also making a lot of progress in opening government data and services for their citizens.

Two national governments leading the way are the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, the UK has data.gov.uk, where they’ve committed to publishing all of their government data. Some of the massive data sets for this portal are running on the Windows Azure cloud platform, which is well suited to large data volumes and high transaction rates.

What are the most valued or accessed open data sets?

This varies from place to place. We often see that the most popular datasets are related to travel/transport (bus schedules, transit routes, public transit times) because of their universal appeal for city dwellers. You can easily pipe this data through an application that citizens can use to decide when they need to take an alternate route. Because of this, real time transport data is very popular and very reusable.

Other popular data sets include city service data (parks, parking facilities, etc.) and anything else with a real-time nature. Another popular data type is statistical and trending data, especially crime statistics (anonymized, of course, to ensure privacy). Until now, this information was previously difficult for citizens to access, but like transit data, it can have very practical uses for constituents.

In a post-Wikileaks era, how do leaders strike a balance between providing data that is open while protecting/securing sensitive data?

We still see is a lot of confusion here. Some governments are actually reticent to publish their data – they are concerned about a ‘Wikileaks’ scenario. But open data and Wikileaks are not the same thing. It’s important to note that open data contains no personal or private information – it doesn’t mention criminals or victims by name. It’s anonymized.

The typical legislative framework for making a decision on what to make public is data privacy. The question becomes whether the data is legally available through FOIA (Freedom of Information Act or equivalent laws in other jurisdictions), process, or restriction—or is it something you can choose to publish in a very open way?

I’ll close with a real world example: I recently traveled to Colombia and was having a discussion on this very topic. Based on their history, I told them I was surprised they were willing to consider publishing open data. They said yes, that [their past] is exactly why they’re trying to do it. They are making great strides in demonstrating a commitment to openness with their citizens.

Have a comment or opinion on this post? Would you like to ask Mark your own question about open government? Let me know @Microsoft_Gov. Have a question for the author? Please e-mail us at ongovernment@microsoft.com.

Michele Bedford Thistle
Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Microsoft on Government Blog

About the Author

Michele Bedford Thistle | Business Manager, Government, National Security, and International Organizations, Worldwide Public Sector

Michele is focused on sharing stories from government customers creating real impact for citizens, employees, economies, and students. She joined the worldwide team from Microsoft Canada, where she was also marketing lead for several technology start-ups.