Friday, August 28, 2015

Understanding Mechanisms for Accessing Government Data and Information


Back in 2013, I posted an article at the OGP Civil Society Hub blog on the need for a closer collaboration between the Freedom of Information (FOI) and Open Government Data (OGD) communities. A couple of years later (and many developments in these fields), the debate on the connections between FOI and OGD has resurfaced. The third International Open Data Conference (held in Canada in May 2015) provided the location and opportunity to reinvigorate the debate about the linkages between these two communities. Following the discussions at that event, a debate, which began as a discussion about the relationship between privacy and openness, soon focused on the lack of relationship between the FOI and OGD communities.

Despite the fact that these types of exchange have attracted more attention in FOI circles, the topic has not been ignored by the OGD organisations (in particular, the international groups). The concerns expressed in FOI circles have had a clear correlation in the reaction of international organisations such as the Web Foundation, MySociety and OKFN to the proposed weakening of the UK FOI Act. Thus, the current Government backlash against FOI in the UK, even though it is worrying news for the FOI community, has had positive side effects. The international organisations working in open data-related activities are publicly getting involved in the advocacy process, to try and stop the British government’s latest efforts to weaken that country’s FOI law.

In this context, this report predicated on the idea that there is still plenty to learn in terms of Freedom of Information and Open Government Data policies. Thus, it examines some of the basic differences and similarities between the two information-related initiatives of FOI and OGD. Despite OGD and FOI common points, the differences between these two fields have to be taken into account, especially in a context of paucity of joint activities.

This report also includes information on existing rankings, indices and other measurements used for these two initiatives, FOI and OGD. The assessments were also classified according to the main object, approach and goals, together with some geographical references.

Most of the measurements included in this report relate to the possibilities of access to information and data, and the possibility of reusing disclosed data (depending on the specific field). In this context, even though assessing these issues is not straightforward, we can see even greater efforts are needed if we are to progress to assessing the impacts of FOI and OGD.

There is much fruitful research, assessment and analysis to be done of both OGD and FOI. In addition to research on the conceptual aspects of both, there is a need to complement this with more action-based research into how these mechanisms of access and reuse are being used. Despite some research has been conducted in terms of the users of certain types of information and open data, further research is needed to develop a framework to allow for a global systematic assessment on the use of a government information and data.

There are also other points that need some effort in order to build bridges between the FOI and the OGD communities:

  • On the FOI side, fairly close links have been developed with privacy/data protection specialists, as all FOI regimes need to navigate the boundary line between appropriate disclosure of government-held information and what would be inappropriate disclosure of personal information about third parties.  On the OGD side, technologists working to derive valuable insights datasets face similar privacy issues. Thus, there are connections that can be fostered here.
  • There is also scope to explore collaboration on improvements to copyright and intellectual property legislation. There seems little reason why the rights to re-use data should be greater than the right to re-use information obtained via FOI requests.
  • Similarly, there is room for collaboration on the question of file formats. While the formats and mechanisms needed by OGD practitioners may differ from those needed by FOI requesters, the latter are still subject to risks of not being able to use disclosed information if it is provided in a close file format.
  • While the OGD movement may not have exhausted other technical and legal issues around datasets that are proactively published, practitioners are already seeking access to datasets that their government are unwilling to publish. Thus, the most likely area of collaboration between FOI and OGD communities will come in the issue of gaining access to datasets that governments do not wish to proactively publish, for reasons of political sensitivity mostly. It is here that the decades of experience built up by the FOI community can assist the OGD community. This collaboration can be foster by creating a physical and intellectual space for these FOI and OGD actors to come together to talk to each other (an space with people talking across each other could provide a better chance of an agreed approach to the disclosure of information and data).

In addition to these areas that are ripe for better collaboration at a practical level, conceptual and practical research will assist in removing misunderstandings and enhance the collaboration between these communities. Both successes and failures can help provide examples of the possible collaboration between these groups, and in different sectors (health, environment, education, etc.). Despite the efforts made in the last decade, we have really only begun to take some firsts steps, and there is much to do and a significant distance to be covered. Far more will be achieved, and with far greater efficiency, if both FOI and OGD communities invest in trying to develop a shared learning and research agenda. This will not only deliver more coherent and effective research outputs, but also build crucial bridges between the two communities.

*A variant of this post was published at the Web Foundation's blog.

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