Young participants at the Code for Good Hackathon for Girls Who Code in New York (via Flickr)
As our lives become increasingly digitized, governments must respond to calls to make information available for public consumption on the Internet. Proponents of open data advocate for the release of information collected by governments in formats accessible to all citizens. But what is open data, and how can it help people make sense of their world?
Governments routinely collect facts affecting constituents and regarding a variety of topics including health, the environment, and the economy. According to Open Knowledge International, a global non-profit committed to empowering civil society to harness the power of open data for social impact, data is considered “open” when it is accessible, reusable, and available to all. It is not enough for governments to partially release data or limit its distribution. Instead, for a government to be truly open, datasets must be published in full, in machine-readable formats, and on a central, accessible online platform. Governments should also publicize the release of data, rather than publish information silently. Data.gov, a website administered by the U.S. government, is an example of a government making data publically available online. The website’s information is organized into 14 categories including climate, health, education and public safety.
“Open” has become one of the biggest buzzwords in governance. But what does openness really mean? And does it mean the same thing to governments, civil society groups, the media, and the private sector?
As part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) — Deputy Director Andrew Wilson serves as co-chair of the Council for Engaging the Private Sector — CIPE is also interested in the answer to this question. OGP is a multinational partnership, currently made up of 63 countries and a number of civil society organizations, that aims to make government more transparent, more accountable, and more responsive to citizens.
One way that governments have tried to become more open is through open data — making data about government operations such as budgets, spending, and voting freely available for anyone to use.
But simply releasing some data does not necessarily make a government more transparent or accountable. “So if open data doesn’t produce benefits by itself, how does it work?” asked Emily Shaw in a recent post on the Sunlight Foundation’s blog.
OpenCorporates, a UK-based enterprise founded by Chris Taggart and Rob McKinnon, was created with a simple yet ambitious goal in mind: to have a web page for every company in the world. How would one go about it? OpenCorporates started with taking a closer look at the basic source of information on companies registered in any given country – that country’s corporate registry.
While in principle corporate registries are a part of the official public record and should be easily accessible to the public, in practice that is not always the case. Some countries have registries that are non-searchable or very difficult to search; some require registration and/or payment to search the registry; some carry a licence that explicitly prohibits the reuse of data. The quality and depth of available data also varies. Some registries are incomplete and out of date. Many provide only very basic information that contains no statutory filings or information about directors and significant shareholders, which does not allow for establishing beneficial ownership.
OpenCorporates, with support from The World Bank Institute through its Open and Collaborative Private Sector initiative, set out to change that through establishing the Open Company Data Index. The idea came out of the Open Government Partnership meeting in Brasilia in 2012 and OpenCorporates has since explored over 100 registers to score the access to data and the ability to reuse that data for over 70 countries around the world. Chris Taggart and WBI’s Benjamin Herzberg explained how the index works and why it is important at a lively event on Monday at the OpenGovHub in Washington, DC.