I returned from Warsaw Poland earlier this week where I participated in the Open Government Data Camp and led a half-day workshop on Linked Open Data. OGDC 2011 was a conference about data, not technology. The nexus for all our discussions centered on transparency, accountability and driving new forms of economic development from open government data.

In an increasingly budget-constrained environment, governments are seeking better, faster and cheaper approaches using Web architecture and Open Source software to respond to Open Government initiatives. We are experiencing a transformation in how large government organizations operate. When venerable institutions such as the US Library of Congress asks our firm to explain “how your solution complies with the Library’s published Open Source Policy because this is very important to us,” we know times are changing … for the better. We also believe the Web is the a natural place to publish information for public dissemination. The modern Web is an information system owned by no one and yet open to vendors, governments and private citizens.

Open Government Data initiatives and partnerships have the potential to transform how we organize ourselves and how we address some of the world’s most pressing problems in the 21st Century. Hundreds of people the gathered from over 40 nations to discuss many issues around open government data publication and consumption models, open licensing approaches, provenance and improved tooling to name but a few topics.

The Open Government Data Camp featured many speakers and participants who have been integral in this sea change. The Open Knowledge Foundation delivered as promised. There were opportunities to meet and have discussions with the people behind the European CommissionCivic CommonsmySociety, the Open Knowledge Foundation, the Sunlight Foundation, the World Wide Web Foundation, the World Bank and many other organizations who work on open data.

Speakers at the Open Government Data Camp highlighted the successes of the past several years but gave equal treatment to the perils we face in getting meaningful access to information collected by and about local, state and national authorities. Industry thought leaders including several who are long time advocates of standards and policies for open data such as Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Southampton and Head of the Web and Internet Science Group. Nigel also sits on the UK Government’s Public Sector Transparency Board. He ranks high among the thought leaders who have shaped today’s Web as the mature and trusted information system that is the foundation of all Open Government Data policies. Professor Shadbolt reported “Open Government Data creates social and economic value, improves public services, makes Governments more efficient, transparent and accountable. The Conference was about ensuring that more people understand how to make this work, such that more people can tackle the challenges and obstacles that arise, and more people are inspired to continue the work.” I believe Nigel spoke for the Open Government Data community when he said, “The data is the purest simplest platform for interoperability. The data is better than anyone’s behind-the-scenes API.”

Andrew Stott, member of the UK Transparency Board & the former UK Government Director of Transparency & Digital Engagement, called out to the conference delegates to respond to the UK’s two consultations on Public Data. These include: “Making Open Data Real” how the UK Government should build on its good progress and embed transparency and open data as business as usual through the public sector. The second consultation is on the “Public Data Corporation” , UK Government’s consultation on data policy regarding the future of the UK Government’s information trading funds which, historically, have charged for their data.

Ellen Miller from the Sunlight Foundation spoke about the 5 year old, non-profit which is the “grand daddy of the online open government movement.” The foundation takes direction from Justice Louis Brandeis’ philosophy that “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant.” Open government data advocates and entrepreneurs included Tom Steinberg who described the power of proving simple information that benefits civic society. Tom shined some sunlight on potentially wasteful government spending by the that has the potential to undermine free market forces for generating supply and demand for products and services. He cited the Pedro Prieto-Martin, Luis de Marcos, Jose Javier Martinez article titled TheE-(R)evolutionWillNotBeFunded.

I was grateful that at least two of the keynote speakers, Canadian Open Government Data activist David Eaves and UK founder of OpenCorporates Chris Taggartunderscored the obstacles facing the reality of transparent governments publishing open data, albeit with different perspectives on the challenges. Obstacles include insufficient sustained momentum, proprietary approaches by government to provide Web services, and “blockers” who are officials who view publication of open data as a threat to be controlled. Blockers are sometimes found in the least expected places. According to a recent [http://www.economist.com/node/21531011 Economist article "In praise of chaos"] dated 1-Oct-2011, “Some governments are pushing to be more than mere stakeholders and instead to have the final say in important matters. China and Russia want the United Nations General Assembly to adopt an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security”. India, Brazil and South Africa have called for a “new global body” to control the internet.” I would add to the list of challenges the need for more public and private partnerships to articulate the issues and tailor appropriate solutions best suited to government and the public.

Where to from here?

We have to make it easy and less expensive than doing it the way ‘we’ve always done it before.’ The open government data community has to articulate approaches and provide tools that allow publishers to get something back for their effort. As humans, we are primed to share but we also need incentives to share. We discussed private and public partnerships to provide incentives, drive requirements and define value for both government and the public.

The benefits of open government data will be realized when there is available guidance, easy to use tools and of course, high quality data itself that citizens and government can meaningfully use via the Web. A take-away from the Open Government Data Camp was that a mainstream movement of publishing open government data will occur when authorities get something in return. This includes:

What will it take to cross the chasm?

It will take attention to the following: * Government supported agendas; * Participation from the bottom up and top down; * Funding of public/private partnerships; and * Availability of Open Source tools for Open Data.

1) An agenda

Credit where credit is due. The UK Government has given thoughtful consideration to publishing high quality that is reusable. In 2010, the UK Government set up the Public Sector Transparency Board. The Board will drive forward the Government’s transparency agenda, making it a core part of all government business and ensuring that all Whitehall departments meet the new tight deadlines set for releasing key public data sets.

Other countries data dot gov programs need to build on the their progress so far and recognize the cost savings and efficiencies achieved by publishing open data as the de facto standard. Commitment to transparency and reuse must be defined as part of the open government data agenda that is supported from the top down and bottom up. An Open Government agenda would define a fundamental set of “minimum requirements” for government data. I contend that for information where government authorities are in the unique position to collect in the first place, should be produced as Linked Data from the start. Capturing the data and being able to publish the same data using the international data exchange standards, specifically RDF family of standards, would produce very significant cost savings and reduce the burden on both government staff.

2) Participation in Open Data Organizations

As a co-chair of the W3C Government Linked Data Working Group, I believe government participation in organizations such as the Open Knowledge Foundation and W3Cwho promote Open Government Data is necessary for engaging people and sustaining momentum. Organizations such as the OKF and W3C hold workshops, camps and conferences that are excellent forums to discuss, address and share approaches that will ensure interoperability of data sets, vocabularies and best practices. I encourage you to get active starting with joining mailing lists and joining hack-a-thons, workshops and other events.

3) Funding

Authorities have already spent millions and in many cases, billions of dollars, collecting and curating this data. A small fraction of the budget used for collection and curation should be used to funding improved methods for publishing valuable data.

I’m referring to funding for researchers and commercial companies with domain expertise in Web architecture and Linked Data publishing. While civically minded citizens can do an enormous amount to generate demand for open government data, having the requisite domain expertise to model and convert data with sufficient context is critical. To realize the benefits of Linked Data, highly interlinked data sets are required and that often requires small teams of experts in ontology development.

4) Open Source Tools for Open Data

Open Data using Open Source tools is increasingly seen as the viable mechanism that Open Government Data will become wide spread globally, especially in the current economic climate. Web developers need easy to use Open Source tools to produce applications. Several good tools for creating data driven applications exist includingSemantic Drupal and Callimachus. Drupal is ideal for working with largely unstructured Web content with support for RDF to enhance unstructured data. By contrast, Callimachus is a framework for data-driven applications based on Linked Data principles. Callimachus is an excellent alternative to creating a traditional data warehouse.

With small but meaningful government funding to “seed” high quality Linked Data sets, we’ll all benefit and show the immediate value of Open Government Data that can be shared and re-used by other authorities and the public. These useful Open Government Data sets, published as Linked Data, are reducing data integration costs and improving decisions made by policy makers and legislators. Authorities also should be prepared to spend a small amount on funding to educate, mentor and guide government staff in processes, tools and maintenance strategies to publish high quality data sets.

What will it take to move into the future?

In future conferences, we as a community must be prepared to describe how governments can reduce wasteful spending and calculate a return on investment using open data strategies. Just as the private sector demands ROI on IT projects in the 18 month timeframe, we can and must do the same for open government data projects.

I agree with Andrew Stott’s summary of what it will take to keep up the momentum:

I encourage the Open Government Data Camp participants to keep up the momentum through participation in a government agenda, public and private partnerships, development of business cases for funding, creation and support of Open Source tools for Open Government Data. Advocate for what you believe it — otherwise someone else will drown out our voices with their own agenda, which may not be as open.