OKFestival 2014 Highlights the Power of Open Data

Mark Boyd
Jul. 18 2014, 05:17PM EDT

The OKFestival commenced in Berlin today, with three opening keynotes that highlighted the potential for open data to create political change, while also identifying some of the battles lost and challenges ahead. This was followed by a speed-geek trip around the world, with more than 25 countries and regions sharing the progress of the open data and API agendas in their home locations.

Above: Opening proceedings at the OKFestival in front of a packed audience.

Hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation, and with more than 1,000 participants in the attendance, the OKFestival looks at how civic society can use open data to uncover corruption and foster political and corporate transparency, empower civic life, build more inclusive societies, improve engagement between governments and citizens, and create economic opportunities.

First Day Keynotes

Rufus Pollock, president and founder of Open Knowledge, opened the two-day event by saying that while there has been “a real transformation, especially in the last five years, how we make data into knowledge is still a big question.”

Patrick Alley then started keynote proceedings with an overview of the work of Global Witness, a campaign-based organization that investigates the links among natural resources, conflict and corruption.

Global Witness’ data collection spans traditional investigative journalism techniques to viral video-making. Alley gave examples ranging from citizen sense-making techniques (in which the Liberian timber trade was monitored by measuring every ship that left port, the amount of timber that was on it, who it was sold to and for how much) to viral video distribution (in which YouTube videos documenting corruption were kayaked into the remote Malaysian villages most affected).

In many ways, Global Witness is still establishing many of the data systems that may eventually be empowered by APIs. To visualize corruption using the data sources it mines, Global Witness previously used i2 software, which has an SDK to allow integration of third-party data sources under its umbrella, for example (Global Witness did not use this feature and has since stopped using the software). Global Witness has found that visualizing corruption data is an essential tool in building social awareness and interest, with one recent animated visualization having been retweeted 15 times more often than previous text-heavy research analyses.

Alley hopes that new rules in the U.S. requiring companies to declare the payments made to countries in return for natural resources will prevent corporations from maintaining secrecy around payments they make to corrupt regimes. It is unclear whether the legislation—Section 1504 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act—will require this data to be made available in machine-readable form, but that is the push of advocates in the U.S. and among those trying to enact similar laws in the U.K. and Europe.

Another keynote speaker, Beatriz Busaniche, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Argentinian equivalent, Fundación Vía Libre, talked about the link between intellectual property laws and human rights. She argued that the “1886 Berne Convention still regulates how we distribute knowledge. It is a treaty from the 19th century that regulates how we access culture in the 21st century.”

Finally, Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh talked about the role of civic action. She encouraged technologists to get out from behind keyboards and tablet screens and into real social movement action in order to realize many of the changes that those involved with open data are advocating. One insight she shared demonstrated the importance that APIs are playing in facilitating global change: Okolloh is excited by the evolution of opening up data on government budgets, with APIs playing a role by connecting the dots so that open budgets are linked with open spending data, allowing a more transparent opportunity to follow the money.

Around the World With Open Data

Immediately following the keynotes, attendees from all corners of the globe shared a series of two-minute presentations (but not from Australia and New Zealand, nor from OKFestival host country Germany, which only said it hopes it can become as much a champion of open data as it proved to be in the World Cup).

A look at progress on open data efforts around the globe shows how governments are using APIs to share data and build more participatory civic societies. But equally, there was a real sense of how much of the open data agenda is still in a nascent stage, with APIs far on the horizon and many opportunities to build knowledge infrastructure.

Here’s a summary of the main progress from the countries and regions presenting:

Argentina

  • Argentina is focused on interaction design as a way to identify the most appropriate interface to connect people with data.

Burkina Faso

  • Burkina Faso has just launched an open data platform, with data sets on health and education.
  • Developers are starting to build applications via an API based on the open data, such as a school selector based on the education data.

Canada

  • Canada launched an open data portal a year ago, connecting both French and English resources.
  • More than 190,000 data sets are included, many with APIs.
  • The government is particularly impressed by the winner of a recent hackathon, NewRoots (by Electric Sheep), which has built a startup around its app, which uses APIs to connect a range of data sets in order to help users identify where they might want to live. While attuned to Canadian open data sources, the idea is that using similar open data sets from around the globe, the app could be scaled to help residents make similar decisions around the globe.

Chile

  • Chile uses the Junar open data platform, which can also convert open data sets into APIs automatically.
  • The Chilean national government is working with cities to come up with a local government open data strategy, as Chilean cities rarely publish open data.
  • More than 300 people have registered for an upcoming marathon of inequality visualizations being planned by the government.
  • The government is also investing in a creating a Civic Innovation Lab to encourage use of open data.

China

  • City-level open data portals are emerging, with 300 data sets available, but these are mostly for data sets like places of interest.
  • China is ranked 61 out of 77 countries for openness of data. The government is still researching what portal to use to make open data available.
  • China has a contradiction in that data, when it is released, is often machine-readable, but the licensing rights for using open data are unclear.

Egypt

  • Egypt has two main open data issues: Data formats are not very open, and the devil is in the details. For example, if you look at transport data, open data indexes show that it is available, but it doesn’t include rail or bus networks. It's the same with government spending data, which doesn't include military spending data.
  • There is no freedom-of-information legislation in Egypt.

Finland

  • Finland’s open data advocacy group is growing quite fast and has brought five other cities—besides the capital of Helsinki—into publishing open data.
  • Thirty-six public sector organizations have been educated, with each now opening up some data.

France

  • France recently launched a new version of its open data platform.
  • It has appointed at the state level a chief data officer, who is focused on promoting data sharing across government agencies.
  • One of the most advanced projects is the French open API model, which provides the complete tax system in machine readable form, the OpenFisca project. Using the API or web service, it is possible to simulate various policy models and proposals to see the impact on French households, for example.

Greece

  • 2014 has been a productive year.
  • Most data sets are available on the web (by searching Google, for example) but not via an open data platform.
  • None of the data is available in an API, machine-readable format yet.
  • “So therefore we have data that is open, but without knowledge.”

India

  • A national data-sharing policy was passed in 2012.
  • An open data platform was established in 2013.

Indonesia

  • The Indonesian government’s open data portal is in beta stage, with 631 data sets, and will be officially launched later this year.
  • Following recently held elections, general election data has been opened up to allow monitoring and counting of votes in a marked move to increase transparency in the archipelago.

Israel

  • While more data is being opened, volunteers must often push for access to the specific data they need.
  • A move to open up the budget via open data has revealed that there are a lot of budget transfers, some with changes of 400 to 500 percent during the year. So while the data is open, the reality is that the budget can change dramatically during the fiscal year. Open data advocates launched a campaign to explain this and to ensure that data on budget transfers is similarly opened. They have since used APIs to create an app that alerts when a budget transfer is going to occur. Among the most interested app users are parliamentarians themselves, who want to stay informed of expected budget transfers ahead of voting on such decisions.

Italy

  • While 10,511 data sets have been released, there is a big divide between north and south in policy implementation (the bulk of open data occurs in the north).
  • Official guidelines on how government agencies should manage open data have been released.
  • Community groups have scraped data for 10,000 previously Mafia-owned buildings to enable these properties to be used by communities.

Japan

  • It launched an open data portal in late 2013.
  • More than 10,000 data sets are available.
  • Civic sector participation in opening data is growing rapidly, with 32 local governments participating in the recent Open Data Day.
  • The Japanese government has created standard terms of use for open data, but this isn’t compatible with existing Creative Commons licenses. One concern is that the standards say open data use is not authorized where it is “against public policy,” but this is not defined.

Kenya

  • It is hoped that the new government, elected last year, will bring more opportunities to connect with communities and local governments.
  • It's building grassroots organizations to use open data. Data sets have been added to the country’s data portal.
  • A tender has been announced in March to build engagement of open data and to increase interest in open data inside and outside of government.

Latin America and the Caribbean

  • This region is made up of 42 countries (21 in Latin America and 21 in the Caribbean). Fifteen of these have made a commitment to open data policies, but only one country is in the Caribbean.
  • While progress is slow across the region, there are some encouraging signs, particularly among agriculture ministries opening up their data.

Mexico

  • Last week, Mexico launched the beta site Data Squad.
  • The government’s open data policy was crowdsourced by the community, with polls conducted to identify which data was most important to open up.
  • So far, 10 strategic agencies are publishing more than 100 data sets on energy, agriculture, etc.
  • The government is now focused on community collaboration to spark innovation.

Middle East and North Africa

  • Jordan and Tunisia have joined the Open Government Partnership.
  • There are some small open data projects, with data being shared mostly by PDF and Excel spreadsheets, although in some cases, handwritten data is being scanned and added to the open data portal.
  • A consultation on open data policy is occurring across the region, but one concern is that policy drafts suggest that people pay for access to the data (so, technically, it is not really open data).
  • Freedom-of-information legislation hardly exists in the region, where information is classified as private and restricted by default.

Pakistan

  • In the North-West Frontier Province, government officials are leading the launch of Code for Pakistan, which will establish a fellowship program that will bring coders to work with four government departments to build applications on top of open data.
  • Governments are making applications open source. Citizens are participating in a civic right-a-thon to document policy responses for frequently asked questions.

Poland

  • A big challenge is to get public institutions to publish data.
  • What is most effective in the country is that citizens are really active in suing the government in order to access information. These cases tend to be highly reported by the Polish media, showing the need and community support for open data. As a result, more action is coming from citizens releasing their data on a community-run open data portal.
  • The Polish government has just published an open data portal, but most of the data published is in PDF format.

Romania

  • Romanian data advocates have focused on creating three advocacy tools:

    1. A coalition of programmers, activists and startups are in dialogue with public sector agencies to provide solutions to help open up data.
    2. Advocates tend to approach embassies to encourage ambassadors to speak with the Romanian prime minister about the value of opening up data, as this is often a more effective advocacy route than community lobbyists approaching the government directly.
    3. Public policy on open data is being introduced to make it less dependent on political will.
  • More than 100 data sets have been published nationally, and there is a department in charge of coordinating open data initiatives in Romania.

South Korea

  • A Public Data Law was introduced to legislate action on open data.
  • Five hundred eighty-five data sets have been opened with an API (out of 8,363 data sets), representing around 7% of all open data in the country.
  • A civic engagement project—Code for Seoul—is modeled on the Code for America initiative, with 20 volunteers participating in city open data and tech liaison projects.

Sweden

  • While Sweden is one of most advanced digital countries in the world, it is still quite slow on adoption of open data, with only 655 data sets listed on the national open data portal. A new open data portal is to be created, and an open data conference is planned for November.
  • It is hoped that this culture will change, given that the government is sponsoring 58 projects that share a combined funding of almost 3 million euros to work on open data projects.

Switzerland

  • Switzerland launched an open data government portal last year and has had an open data government strategy in place since April.
  • There is strong government commitment to publishing data on a national platform and to collaborating with the open knowledge community to establish an open data culture in Switzerland.
  • An open transport API, which sees several hundred thousand calls made per day, has been developed. The API is provided for free, with long-term resourcing issues remaining unresolved.

Ukraine

  • An open data portal has been launched.
  • The nonprofit Social Boost is actively involved in using open data as a source of information for socially meaningful projects
  • Three main work programs involve:

    1. working on accelerating the range of startups that are using open data to create new products and services;
    2. managing a network of volunteers who are curating open data; and
    3. using open data in smart and open cities.

United States

  • While there are good intentions for the opening up of data, progress has been slow. For example, any organization with funding over a certain level is required to open up its research data, but this hasn’t occurred yet, and there is no regulating of the open science agenda. However, the National Institutes of Health has recently stopped providing grants to projects until their research data is opened in accordance with the open science funding requirements.
  • The national Project Open Data is run on GitHub and provides a central resource to help government agencies develop open data strategies and implement common standards, including standards for open data licenses and for the creation of APIs.
  • Data.gov has more than 104,000 data sets uploaded, but a question remains as far as how useful many of them are.
  • Across the U.S., cities are increasingly opening up their data.

Uruguay

  • Cities sharing their data account for half of all new data sets added to the open data portal in the country.
  • The goal is for more structured release of data and to engage communities in using the open data—for example, using open data to measure the accountability of education and health services.
Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities. I can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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