Trust in government has rarely been at a lower ebb. Citizens in developed and developing countries alike feel increasingly disconnected from the political process and their political leaders. They complain of having too little influence over decisions, too little access to government information and too little control over their own data. In such an environment, suspicion and anger can erupt as we have seen across the world, and most recently in Istanbul’s Taksim square.
At the same time, governments are operating in very challenging circumstances. They have to meet rising expectations from their citizens with, thanks to the impact of the global financial crisis, often severely reduced revenues. They also face a whole range of pressures such as a demographic change which will make bridging this gap ever more difficult. There has never been a greater need for open and honest dialogue and for as wide a possible involvement in arriving at the right innovative solutions.
There is no single answer to these concerns. But it is clear that opening up government data must be a major element of the answer. Open data has enormous potential to drive economic growth and spread prosperity. It improves accountability, strengthens governance, builds trust and drives innovation in both the private sector and the delivery of key public services.
There are already many examples from around the world that these benefits are already being delivered. In the UK, Mastodon C, a start-up incubated by the Open Data Institute, used open data on prescriptions by GPs to show that the NHS could have saved over £200 million by prescribing generic drugs instead of their more expensive patented equivalents.
In India, the technology platform I Paid A Bribe enables citizens to publicly log whenever they have been shaken down for a bribe. In Mexico, Compara Tu Escuela (Check Your School) empowers parents by providing them directly with information on school performance.
We all benefit as citizens and consumers, as economies and societies, if we get this right. It is why the expected decision by the G8 countries to adopt an Open Data Charter at the G8 summit in Lough Erne is so important.
This would be an historic move and a genuine breakthrough for the growing movement to open up government and private sector data. It should mean that all G8 members agree to publish as much information as possible in a form, which is useable and accessible to all.
While there should be, rightly, exceptions to protect personal information, the default position should change from non-publication to publication of government data in a way which is timely, comprehensive, clear and does not impose costs on its users.
Such a move would fit in well with the wider agenda of the G8 this year, which is about reforming trade and bringing greater fairness and transparency to international taxation. Countries have understood they all benefit if there is much less secrecy about who pays what tax and where.
Agreeing the Charter, however, is only a first step if countries and citizens are to benefit from the decision to open up and democratise information. First, of course, we need to see governments meet not just the letter but also the spirit of the charter. Opening up data should cut across all G8 priorities, including tax, transparency on extractive industries, aid and land deals. Information that is released as open data and is fully searchable will enable governments and civil society to crack down on tax evasion.
This will include governments having the courage to realise that opening up will lead to calls for reform. They have a great deal to gain from encouraging greater engagement and participation in policy debates and decisions. They will also need to balance citizens’ concerns with privacy and the need for transparency of government data.
Secondly, we also need companies to follow the G8’s lead. They must consider how they can make as much of their data as possible open to the public. Thanks to recent European Commission directives and the US Dodd-Frank Act, extractive companies are required to be increasingly transparent on the revenues they pay to national government. All companies are sitting on a goldmine of information which is not commercially sensitive but which can help provide the missing piece of the jigsaw.
The more actors which open up data the greater the benefits will be. In just 20 months, the Open Government Partnership, which the UK currently co-chairs, has grown into a global movement comprising 59 members. They too must consider how they can make as much of their data as possible open to the public.
Finally, we need to see actual impact on people’s lives as a result of all this information. Overcoming barriers, formal and informal, to publishing data is only one half of the battle. We need to help research institutions, civil society organisations, the private sector and individuals work together to find solutions to local, national and global problems thanks to this data.
Technology platforms have already allowed us to harness the collective power and wisdom of thousands to improve policies and public services. Open data can help us drive the next stage of this revolution, and enable millions to have their voices heard and save precious government funds.