Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Where open data leads us

This piece was originally posted on the FutureGov blog.

Akvo RSR

Data is the lifeblood of any decision maker. To make good decisions, you need to understand what is going on. If you make decisions money is super data: not only does money tell you if your customers like what you do, but it also indicates whether the projects and departments are running well. Are you over budget? Do you have money to operate next quarter? The problem is that you can’t easily measure everything in money. Did 18 schools get built instead of 23? Is this good or bad? What if the schools that got built were in the poorest area because of changes in priority? In this case, the end result of building fewer schools was actually better. The story attached to the data enables us to interpret the raw data.

Akvo Foundation, of which I am a co-founder and director, was recently awarded a contract by the Dutch government to operate and enhance Akvo Really Simple Reporting (RSR). Akvo RSR makes it easier to see the work done by development aid organisations, opening their projects up online and helping them share status updates as they happen, via the web and mobile phones. In other words Akvo are providing the ability to show the data, as well as the story behind the data. We will operate and enhance Akvo RSR as an online service for five years, as part of a development aid programme by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called MFS II.

Akvo is a non-profit foundation, which we operate on the basis of “not for profit, not for loss”. We have a business model and charge for some of our services. The online service that we develop and operate is nearly all based on open source software – and Akvo RSR, which is our core service, is published as such, too.

What is new here is that a small non-profit, open source, foundation is running a small but growing part of the Dutch government’s information technology infrastructure. MFS II in total is worth about 2.1 billion Euro, while the pieces we provide online reporting for are “only” worth 100 million Euro, less than 5% of the total. But we are already talking with many of the different NGOs which manage the rest of these development aid funds about extending their use of Akvo RSR, and if reactions from others around the world, including several governments, in the last couple of months are anything to go by, this is going to be big.

Will anyone get fired for buying open source?

There used to be a joke that “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. Indeed, 10 to 15 years ago, the scenario I describe to you today would have been inconceivable. Back then an online services contract like this would have gone to a very different organisation, like IBM, and it would have been built on a “proprietary” platform with the data locked away. There is a really interesting trend here where many governments have realised that democracy is better served with open data and open platforms, and that you can run this on open source software. The most discussed examples of this are data.gov in the US and data.gov.uk in the UK. But the trend is discernable in many places, from Norway to Argentina – just see the make-up of the Working Group on Open Government Data hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation.

In our case the Dutch government is paying for Akvo to not only build and operate this open data service, but also leaves it up to our entrepreneurial selves to define exactly how the service should function, and I would argue that this is both progressive and bold. They could have demanded that we deliver information in some particular way, but they didn’t, and I predict they will be really happy with the end result.

A strong reason to not specify how the data should be delivered is that the potential for innovation in this field is very high right now, and deciding how things must look in five years would be an exercise in futility. Consider that sites like YouTube (2005), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) have gone from zero to hundreds of millions of users in the same timeframe. No one, least of all their founders, could have conceived what they look like today.

A 21st century safety valve

The fact that Akvo RSR is open source software has acted as a potential safety valve for our government investors. They understand that open source software is better to have than proprietary closed software when the government is betting on a startup, as the end result can be reused easily if things go off-course. But I am now convinced that this is last decade’s battle. Open source guru Tim O’Reilly has long argued that the new frontier in the computer industry is not about open source software, but about open data.

The issue in the future isn’t about whether you have your data in a proprietary software system, but whether you can share it with others openly. So called data lock-in is a real danger. (Not that essentially all our NGO partners aren’t struggling with proprietary data systems in which they have a lot of data, which they can’t migrate from easily.)

Some of the most interesting uses of open data in recent years have come from non-traditional sources. 25,000 people got involved in reviewing the expenses of UK members of parliament after the Guardian newspaper and website provided a user interface for the data.

I hear a number of people at government level in the UK express thoughts that they can cure the headache of how to make government more transparent, if we just open up the data. But I think this is false. You can’t replace a bureau of statistics by an army of volunteers who trawl open government data for fun and produce information that makes sense and that the government needs to run a country. A few cases will titillate the public into participating, but you would be extremely foolish to base your data analysis strategy on it. But that doesn’t mean that government shouldn’t build open data systems. After all, it is the people’s government and now, when it finally is economically feasible to do so, the information that the government uses to perform its work really should be available to all of us (with reasonable exceptions with regards to privacy and safety).

Conclusions

To best serve democracy I suggest that not only should civil society functions, like development aid, use open data interchange standards like the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)’s XML schema, but they should run them on open source software and provide open application programming interfaces (APIs) for data interchange.

I think it is foolish to believe that “if you open it they will build what you need on it, for free”. Government needs to open up data infrastructure, but also needs to invest money to improve, innovate around and maintain this infrastructure. Consider looking to outsiders for many of these functions, as old hierarchical institutions are notoriously bad at innovation. But government must also have good technologists advising the decision makers, or you are in for a world of hurt, like the UK government’s failed IT health system, scrapped at a cost of 6 billion pounds.

I think that the future government communication infrastructure will be immensely more complex than what we have today, with a plethora of services available, some offered by non-profits, some by companies and some by governmental organisations. Some will even be offered by individuals.

There will be a challenge to keep the services open, open in a way which allows you to move the data and the services to another service provider, without losing out on the way.

Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson is co-founder and chief technology officer of Akvo.

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thomas@bjelkeman.com

Co-director: Akvo Foundation

+46-8-626 7609

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