PA Times International Supplement: Open Government Beyond the U.S. Experience

PATimesOGov2012 by inesmergel
PATimesOGov2012, a photo by inesmergel on Flickr.

The PA Times has just published an international supplement titled “Open Government Beyond the U.S. Experience”. I have a short piece on the challenges and possible solutions for opening data in government.


Open Data Goes Global: Challenges and Solutions

Ines Mergel

The current administration’s Open Government and Accountability initiative has spurred technological and procedural innovation in the U.S. public administration. The concept of Open Government is certainly not new: Each of the previous administrations in the last 40 plus years has aimed at opening government. What is new and remarkable in comparison to previous Open Government efforts is the notion of information as a national asset–many of the in2010 published Open Government plans of the U.S. federal departments in der executive branch have therefore focused on data provision, and new forms of citizen engagement to increase transparency, accountability, and trust in their operations. Examples include the White House flagship initiative, a platform that provides government data sets in machine-readable form;, a platform that provides data to track spending related to the Recovery Act; and initiatives like, that streamlines the influx of solutions to government problems from the public.

Data provision platforms for reuse of public sector information don’t come without criticism. As an example, it is still unclear who the users of the currently more than 390,000datasets are. App contests, such as Apps for America, Apps for Democracy, etc. have initiated some use, mainly by civic hackers who are now serving as mediators between government and citizens by creating smartphone and web applications that reuse government data and are hopefully useful for citizens. Nevertheless, citizens themselves rarely seek out a federal dataset–instead they are usually more interested in local government data that focuses directly on their immediate needs in their local communities.

Open Government Goes Global

2011 was the year in which the Open Government initiative of the Obama administration has matured locally. At the same time it has gone global: Initiatives such as were replicated by other governments around the world.

A few remarkable examples include:

  •  The UK has started their own, providing insights into government contracts, spending, and meeting schedules, as well as applications reusing government data.
  •  The Australian government followed the U.S. and UK lead and has replicated a similar platform called–expanding the data catalogue to include also state and territory data.
  • Similarly, the New Zealand open data portal provides a directory of“ publicly-available, non-personal New Zealand government held datasets.”
  •  The Kenya Open Data Initiative (KODI) started in 2011 with a and related app contests to “make key government data freely available through a single online portal” Data is based on the 2009 census and includes for example data sets on national and regional spending.
  • The Indian government has started a partnership with the U.S. government to build an open data portal based on’s API.
  • The European Union’s open data initiative aims to build an open data platform on a centralized level for all European countries. While some countries, such as Denmark, Spain and France already have their own national public sector information platforms, others are working with the European Commission to finalize the last details of a Europe-wide Open Data Strategy as part of the European digital agenda.

In parallel, app contests, such as Apps for Democracy or Apps for America were replicated around the world. This trend leaves the initiative to reuse public sector information in the hands of citizen hackers, lifting the burden off government’s shoulders to produce mobile applications, initiated by and produced for citizens or other third parties. Some of the contests were directly initiated and orchestrated by government itself, others were initiated by local nonprofit and pro-transparency nonprofits that organized the events and invited civic hackers to contribute their ideas and solutions. Subsequently, the Open Government Partnership among, by now, 51 countries was created (see

All That Glitters is Not Gold…

What these initiatives show is that some aspects of the Open Government initiative have spread globally. Locally, was largely defunded, leaving the government with the heavy burden to motivate the submission of additional datasets, but also the active reuse of already submitted data.

The challenges of going global go beyond funding: They include challenges of reassessing national concepts and technologies within the local context, each nation’s history and status of open government, data accuracy issues, the local usefulness of data catalogues and their reuse–including the willingness of programmers to make sense of the datasets.

Challenge 1: Local Context and History of Open Government

Many international initiatives stall because of the underlying legal requirements within their national contexts. Intellectual property rights, privacy concerns, data protection laws for processing personal data vary across countries. Moreover, each country has to decide where to convene the responsibilities, deciding whether a decentralized organization makes more sense or if there is a necessity for a centralized coordinated effort. Others might already have rules, regulations and procedures in place that allow an easier public sector information reuse.

Challenge 2: Data Accuracy

The U.S. example has shown that the seeding phase of the platform is heavily reliant on voluntary–and at times mandated–contributions by a wide variety of departments and agencies. Data sets therefore come in all kinds of sizes and shapes and the burden to govern data quality and accuracy are left on the shoulders of the submitting agencies. As an example the Australian government therefore provides the following disclaimer: “The datasets provided through have been created by many different government agencies. Consequently, we cannot guarantee the quality or timeliness of the datasets. While we welcome your feedback, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to correct any problems identified with the datasets. For more information see our Terms of Use.”

Challenge 3: Usefulness

Just because government provides the data, does not mean that citizens actively use it. A recent initiative called reaches out to universities and schools to reuse data in the classroom as a teaching tool. Libraries can potentially serve as local conduits for the reuse of data and connect local citizen needs with the tools and applications needed for citizens to actively reuse data in their local contexts–even beyond the federal government data sets.

The World Bank’s open data initiative can serve as a model for all future efforts in increasing the usefulness of large flagship initiatives such as around the world. The visualization elements have truly taken data provision to the next level and increasing the reuse and usefulness of large datasets (see

The Open Government initiative in the U.S. stands at a crossroad: Large investments into have been made, now is the time to think about innovative use, audiences, and applicability to solve problems that government or citizens have. Not all applications can be left to application contests and the government will have to show that the platform is useful.

ASPA member Ines Mergel is an assistant professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public A airs, Department of Public Administration and international Affairs, and a senior research associate at the Center for Technology and Information Policy (CTIP), Syracuse University. email: iamergel(at)

About Ines Mergel

I am Full Professor of Public Administration at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz, Germany. Previously, I served as Assistant and then Associate Professor (with tenure) at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, NY. In my research, I focus on informal social networks in the public sector and the adoption and diffusion of digital service innovations in government organizations. I teach classes on social media management, digital government, public management, and social network analysis.

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