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Data will only get us so far. We need it to be open

Interconnected laptop computers are pictured on a conference table in this handout photograph taken on June 13, 2012 and provided on April 28, 2015.

Open data will enable governments to not only survive but excel as innovators in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Image: REUTERS

Stephen Walker
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At this year's Annual Meeting in Davos, companies and governments gathered to discuss the challenges that lie ahead as we enter a period of rapid innovation and change unlike any the world has ever seen.

Professor Klaus Schwab has made a number of observations about the increasing importance of data and connectivity in realising the Fourth Industrial Revolution and singled out one of the key demands facing government in this next wave of industrialisation: increased public pressure for transparency. Professor Schwab has said:

If [governments] prove capable of embracing a world of disruptive change, subjecting their structures to the levels of transparency and efficiency that will enable them to maintain their competitive edge, they will endure. If they cannot evolve, they will face increasing trouble.

Klaus Schwab

We agree. Much has been said of the potential of data to revolutionise business and relationships. But data will only get us so far on its own. We also need it to be relevant, timely, and usable.

Above all, we need data to be open.

Open data will be a crucial tool for governments to meet the transparency and efficiency challenges highlighted in Davos. This is why, to the greatest extent possible, government data should be open: freely accessible, presented in a format that is comparable and reusable and, ideally, released in a timely manner.

Not only will governments that embrace open data improve their public accountability and efficiency, they will also reap the social and economic benefits of opening up data for citizens. Instead of languishing in a ministry or agency computer system to be viewed by a handful of officials, the data can be accessed and used by citizens to drive entrepreneurship, innovation and social problem solving - increasing its economic and social value exponentially. This is why open government data will determine which countries are at the forefront of Fourth Industrial Revolution.

For example, the Canadian government releases open data on charitable and non-profit organisations. A Montreal-based software company, Ajah, then uses that data to power its Fundtracker program, which in turn allows organisations to research potential donors and identify funding trends. This is just one way in which open data can be reused to generate greater social and economic benefits than if it were used by government officials alone.

To date, only limited progress has been made globally on releasing open government data sets. The most recent Open Data Barometer shows only 8% of governments covered by the Barometer release open data on government spending. In terms of public service delivery, only 12% of governments share open data on the performance of public education, and only 7% of governments release corresponding open data on health services. We need to go much further if governments are to evolve and adapt to the next wave of industrialisation.

Imagine how anti-corruption efforts could be advanced, and what efficiencies could be made if all governments shared open data on public spending. Imagine how much faster services like education and health could be improved if industry experts and citizens using these services could analyse and use the data to identify gaps and then pilot solutions.

In forward-thinking cities and countries, the open data revolution is already underway. In Uruguay, ATuServicio.uy provides direct access to all performance indicators of the country’s health services. From waiting times to user ratings, data on health services can be compared and citizens can make informed decisions on healthcare providers. Investigative journalists have already found anomalies in some of the data provided, and this has encouraged private healthcare providers to standardise and improve their data collection. Examples like this could be the rule rather than the exception if we embrace an open data future.

This is why we launched the international Open Data Charter. The Charter, based on six core principles, guides governments in their commitment to adopt and implement shared open data principles, standards, and best practices across sectors and around the world.

Governed by lead stewards from government and civil society, the Open Data Charter aims to support as many local, regional, and national governments as possible to adopt and implement the principles. To date, the Charter has been adopted by 17 governments and we encourage all governments to seize this opportunity to be at the forefront of the open data revolution.

It is clear today that calls for more efficient and transparent government will not subside. A government that wishes to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and to capitalise on technology and innovation as drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, can only achieve these goals through meaningful commitment to open data. As citizens’ expectations evolve and rapid technological advancements continue, “openness” will cease to be optional for governments.

Open data will enable governments to not only survive but excel as innovators in the next phase of industrialisation. It is a revolution whose time has truly come, and there is no better time than now for governments to be a part of it.

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