A hallowed Eaves takes the scary out of open data at GTEC

A public policy entrepreneur, open government activist, negotiation expert and loquacious blogger, David Eaves champions the cause of open data in government. Systemscope’s Denise Eisner spoke to David after his well-received appearance at the GTEC conference in Ottawa.

David, one of the open data issues that emerged during the GTEC conference was the public sector concern regarding risk. Clearly the issue hit home as you blogged about it immediately! How would you advise federal departments trying to balance openness/transparency and risk management?

The only acceptable risk is if you think people are going to do something illegal. The policy infrastructure for dealing with people who do bad things already exists. This is not to say you shouldn’t have a communications strategy about your data. People may find missing or incorrect data, but that’s OK, you can fix that.

At GTEC, you issued an open challenge to the public sector audience to open their data. Why do you think open data in government has yet to take root?

The technology for sharing is relatively new and people in government are not used to sharing. But there’s a huge appetite among a cohort of public servants and they’re trying to get their institutions interested in sharing.

So what “low hanging fruit” should government departments be thinking about when deciding which data sets to make available first?

I would find all the data sets we already share with the public and consolidate them to a single portal. It is going to cost money and it will require people, something like a swat team to make data sets ready. Sometimes you have data trapped in proprietary structures and you need to get that into a format that’s usable for the world. Edit your procurement so that any new system you buy has an open data component to it. You have to reshape the vendor market.

The return on investment for open data is not just transparency: it’s an efficiency ROI.

You started an open data Web site, ostensibly to fill a void for accessible government open data. What have you learned from that process?

The thing that surprised me the most was how far some government departments have come in sharing in their data, particularly Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada. As of today there are about 200 sets available.

Why not wait for government to finish their data portal project?

What makes the digital era so exciting is that we don’t have to wait for government to act: we can do it on our own. The datadotgc.ca site creates a safe place where we can model the behaviour we want government to display and then have them copy us. That would be the goal.

Did anything surprise you during your recent visit at GTEC?

In Canada, we’re late to the game. What makes the conversation around open data different in DC or Vancouver, is that in those places the conversation is around how we’ve come this far, and how do we keep going. In Ottawa it’s still a question of how we get past that first hump. I don’t know exactly what’s causing this, other than big projects across ministries are always incredibly difficult. A notable difference between the UK and Canada is political leadership. Open data and transparency is a real priority in England. On day one of the new conservative administration, the UK’s prime minister announced he would release more data than the previous administration.

You sound hopeful.

It’s not a huge onerous task. I think that other countries have been able to do it. They have been able to move forward. In most cases government has the data and it is extractable. There may a cost to making it ready. But it’s not a hard issue. What’s hard is shifting the culture.

There are a lot of great people doing this work and we need to support them. One group that I’ve been working with and is pushing forward is Parliament. They’re developing an XML feed to the Hansard with a launch planned for January. This is an important and huge step forward.

I’m hopeful that the incentives are in place to do open data here in Canada. There are potentially significant savings for government through efficiencies, better vendor agreements and more.

Denise Eisner is a Senior Consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice.


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