Crossover News


The first of three events to be organised by the Crossover Project took place in Brussels last month. Officially called Using Open Data: policy modelling, citizen empowerment, data journalism but usually referred to simply as PMOD, the workshop looked at the interplay between open government data, citizens and policy makers. Those taking part included several members of the workshop's high profile programme committee, three of the Crossover Project's animators (Luigi Reggi, David Price and Alberto Cottica) and some invited guests. The vast majority of participants though were the authors of submitted papers.

It was important to the project that the focus was very much on the uses of open data and not the mechanics of its publication. There were several sessions that looked at applications and specific projects but the ones that generated the most discussion from the delegates concerned the importance of interpretation and presentation of data and the need to engage the public. This is summarised in Tim Davies' 5 stars of open data engagement (a reflection of Tim Berners-Lee's 5 stars of linked data).

star  Be demand driven
starstar Put data in context
starstarstar Support conversation around data
starstarstarstar Build capacity, skills and networks
starstarstarstarstar Collaborate on data as a common resource

One of the guests was Franco Accordino who is Head of the European Commission's Task Force Digital Futures. This new unit is just beginning its work to gather ideas for evidence-based policy making that can begin in 2020 (part of the Digital Agenda/Horizon 2020 work). Interestingly, Digital Futures brings scientific data together with subjective opinions that may be contradictory. The project is very much in line with an idea that came up more than once during PMOD, that government open data and social media comments are two aspects of a single communication channel. In the light of this, Franco Accordino asked a thought provoking question: "In a time of ICT/online public engagement, will Switzerland still need so many referenda?"

An aspect of open data that is both an opportunity and a challenge for policy makers is that analysis can now be predictive. Where the prediction is that the desired outcome will flow from a given policy that's likely to be seen as a good thing by the policy's advocates. But it is also possible, for example, to predict children who will be at risk even before they are born. That opens up policy making questions of acute sensitivity.

A typical moment during the workshop

If we distil two whole days of intense discussion down to a series of bullet points we end up with the list below. However, doing this is reminiscent of one of the points made – that regularising data so that it conforms to a pre-defined model may be useful for interpretation and processing, but it is a less accurate reflection of reality which is inherently messy, rich and diverse.

  • The publishing of public sector information cannot be seen as the end of the process. In its raw form, data is all-but meaningless. Meaning - that is, useful information - has to be derived from the data.
  • Access to data is a citizen's right and governments have an obligation to make it available.
  • There is a further obligation on governments to publish information on how the data was obtained, any assumptions that were made, any known gaps there may be etc.
  • With rights go responsibilities. Of no less importance than the obligation on governments to publish data is the obligation on the application developer and end user to take notice of the metadata and not to make assumptions or derive false meaning.
  • Governments and commerce both have a financial interest in the full value chain from raw data though to end products and services.
  • Linked data holds a great deal of promise, especially in the field of policy making where the effects of policies may be revealed in unforeseen ways. That potential is only visible in tools that are easy to use.
  • Open data is fundamental to transparency but transparency is not the same as empowerment.
  • Vast amounts of open data and excellent visualization tools count for nothing if citizens are not engaged. The publication of data must be part of an engagement strategy, one that encourages and facilitates two way interaction, and through which citizens can see tangible effects of their involvement.
  • Social media is an important route through which governments can access citizens' reaction. The combination of open government data and social media data is surely a critical aspect of future policy modelling.

Many of these ideas will be reflected in the Crossover Research Roadmap which, as planned, has been enriched by the workshop.

A full report on the event is published along with the agenda, papers and slides on the W3C Web site with further background in the project deliverable.

Attention now turns to the second crossover workshop due to take place in December in Washington DC. The focus there is more specifically on policy modelling.

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