How governments can harness the power of open data

By on 09/11/2020

Publishing datasets can help governments support economic outcomes and be more transparent. But ethics and cybersecurity must be baked into their approach, advised experts at a recent DELL webinar

When an organisation in the Dublin Bay area began using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to count local prawn stocks, they built an accurate and efficient way of monitoring the crustacean population. But they also created a new open data source that other organisations – including the sailing and diving clubs, ferry operators and fishermen – found alternative uses for.

“What have prawns got to do with open data? Well, absolutely everything,” said Paul Brook, chief technology officer, data analytics and AI, Dell Technologies. “That is open data,” he said. And once you share it, he adds, “the purpose for which it was collected… suddenly has 10, 11, 12 other purposes.” And what’s really interesting is how “the community… adds new sense to the data.”

Data transparency and public behaviour change was the subject of a recent Global Government Forum webinar, held in October and chaired by former UK senior civil servant Siobhan Benita. Civil service and industry experts shared insights on some of the ways in which governments can use open data to foster positive change in the behaviours of individuals and organisations.

COVID-19 has shown just how effective the use of open data can be, with the public regularly tuning in to press briefings where stats were shared. “That’s a very good example of data being put to good use,” said Sam Roberts, head of open data and open government at the UK Government Digital Service (GDS). The briefings show how to “create a narrative – and, in that case, enforce quite an important public health message – using data and evidence as the basis for those decisions,” he said.  

Data to improve transparency

The UK government has had an “open by default” strategy since 2012. Datasets from central government, local authorities and public bodies are published under an open government license (OGL) on a central portal, data.gov.uk. This enables citizens and organisations to find data on everything from government spending to poverty and population insights.

The rationale behind the UK’s open data policy is threefold, explained Roberts:

  • Accountability – “driving trust in decision making”
  • Efficiency – spotting duplication and systemic errors early
  • Economic outcomes – “by making data freely available, innovative companies can pick it up and use it as the basis for new products and services.”

These desired outcomes are shared by governments across the world, said Roberts. “Most, if not all, countries we’ve talked to recognise the importance of transparency… and we’re all kind of moving in the same direction when it comes to creating that use case for open data.” For example, South Korea is “doing some fantastic work around transparency”, says Roberts, and Canada is “working on things like their algorithmic impact assessments”, a tool to help officials assess the risks when using automated decision making.

However, there is more work to do globally to enhance the potential economic outcomes of open data. “I think when we talk about economic outcomes, that’s the one that we’re kind of pushing for,” said Roberts. “That’s something again, as a global community, it feels like we’re close to cracking.”

Collaborate to innovate

Governments should talk to businesses of all sizes to see how they are using data, Brook advised. This is not a game of catch-up, but rather staying in rhythm. “I don’t think in the UK, you are behind the private sector, I think you’re in close lockstep,” he said.

Paul Brook, Chief Technology Officer for Data Analytics & AI, Dell Technologies

Recommendation engines – like Amazon’s famous “people who bought that also bought that” – are a tool governments could use. The public sector “can use that exact same technology to nudge folks along to do the right thing, the good thing, the sensible thing,” said Brook. This may not necessarily be behaviour: it could be as simple as highlighting that people who need this form, also need this other form, for example.

Brook also stressed the importance of not confusing open data with free data. “We spend a lot of money buying data, sometimes from the public sector, and that’s okay,” he said. “Sometimes it’s free, sometimes we pay for it, we then do what we need to do with it to help our business.”

When asked about whether it would be more suitable to distribute data directly to external partners, rather than publishing it centrally, Brook said there is “no better or best way”. Organisations need to evaluate the risk and opportunity involved, he advised. The GDS model is to release data centrally, according to Roberts.

This strategy has led to some “fantastic analysis” by organisations such as They Work For You and other third parties using geospatial data. “The thing that I think we need to focus on in government isn’t so much, who’s using it or what it’s being used for, but increasing the quality is the real key thing here,” he said. Ramping up data quality means “you’re going to see some really interesting stuff coming out from those third parties.”

But going back to the prawns data from Dublin Bay, when third parties refine the data, you may find there are multiple products spinning out of it, Brook noted. While the potential of open data is enormous for governments, organisations and businesses alike, “equally, that is a legal compliance and ethical nightmare,” he said.

The importance of data ethics

Governments can mitigate against these risks by putting standardised tools and frameworks in place. “Data ethics moves more quickly than law can keep up,” explained Roberts. “There are things that are acceptable to the public that may not be legal, but there are also things that may be unacceptable to the public that actually are legal. So it’s important that we think about things in a more holistic way, and we create a number of products to look at this.”

Sam Roberts, Head of Open Data and Open Government, UK Government Digital Service

The UK government’s recently published National Data Strategy will help, as will the Open Government Playbook which advises policymakers on how to follow open government principles. GDS has also developed a Data Ethics Framework, Roberts explained, a product now in its third iteration. This “guides appropriate data use in the public sector and encourages responsible innovation,” he says, which helps public servants “understand and address ethical considerations in their projects”.

This work has involved consulting widely across government, academia and expert groups to understand the current industry standards and how to “keep track with that”, according to Roberts. “As government, you can only really get these things wrong once and it’s really important that we try and keep people in the loop of how we’re using their data,” he added.

Cybersecurity

Security is also paramount. “We tell every customer: bake security into your model,” said Brook. “The unintended consequences of joining datasets is quite scary” and people need to think carefully about the potential consequences of adding datasets together and opening it up, he added.

“The last thing anyone wants to do is stifle innovation, but at the same time it’s so important and absolutely crucial that we get the security side of things right,” said Roberts.

One way to do this is to take time to understand the new products and technology available. “Moving forward and understanding the new kind of world that we’re in, the new technologies available to us, and the kind of security risks that those things pose” in a “comprehensive way” is key, according to Roberts. It’s important to “get educated, assess your risk and understand what you’re doing,” agreed Brook.

With the right training and safeguards in place, there is huge potential for good quality, open data to yield exciting results in future, both economically and in terms of public wellbeing. What’s also clear is that the journey for open data is just beginning. As Brook noted, according to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos it’s day one of the internet – if that is so, “it’s hour one of the data driven generation.”

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