Taking Inspiration from Open Government Data Initiatives

By   /  October 12, 2011  /  No Comments

You don’t have to read very far into your iPad news app to learn the latest about government dysfunctionality, debt, and defaults, whether in the U.S. or abroad. It’s all a little overwhelming, and can’t help but have an impact on how so many nations’ citizens view their present circumstances and their futures, too.

Amid so many negatives, perhaps we can take some inspiration from the fact that this month will see the Open Government Data Camp 2011 being held in Warsaw, Poland. Think about that for a minute: A country that not all that long ago was controlled by an iron fist and blocked from the free world by the Iron Curtain is the host site for the Open Knowledge Foundation event — an undertaking that is very much focused on making government data more transparent and interoperable and transformative for the societies whose governing bodies adopt open data principles and values.

Maybe thinking about things in that light will help anyone discouraged by current events to hope still for a brighter future. Among the presenters at the event discussing how open data can be essential to realizing transformation is Bernadette Hyland, co-chair W3C Government Linked Data Working Group and CEO of 3 Round Stones. Hyland also will be co-conducting a half-day Government Linked Data Workshop during the course of the camp. Hyland’s speech, a report on the progress of the W3C Government Linked Data Working Group, will hone in on why it’s important to share government information and the benefits to be attained from doing so, including transforming how governments serve their citizens in the 21st Century. (The W3C Government Linked Data Working Group is chartered to produce standards and document best practices for the publication of governmental data.)


The goals of creating greater transparency into and access of government data “are very worthy goals and we’ve already seen some of them realized in terms of improved responses to natural disaster, human rights abuses, and environmental health issues,” says Hyland. On top of that, support from many heads of state for open government efforts provides “a unique window of opportunity to publish open government data.”

Still, this progress is just the tip of the iceberg, with questions yet to be answered about issues such as data provenance and authoritativeness for efforts to become truly useful. It’s all well and good to say open government data is a terrific thing, she points out, but practically there’s the reality of how to get to that point. It means, for example, changing things up for those people working in government agencies who are familiar with their own approaches to opening up data, and for coaxing along those developing countries that may have interest in but not yet a strong commitment to e-government. It means in some places (like in the U.S.) facing the reality of sharply curtailed budgets for e-government efforts.

There’s another challenge to confront, as well: Some influential people simply don’t agree with the whole concept. As Hyland puts it, “Not everyone is singing sweetness and light” about opening up government data.

So, how are we going to get from here to there? How can the community maximize the use of Linked Data to allow for the publication of open government information alongside information from non-governmental sources to make a database of the World Wide Web? In her speech Hyland will contend that it is up to representatives from public bodies, NGOs, members of international standards organizations, and civic society to focus on demonstrable benefits to build buy-in.

Considering fiscal challenges, it’s also important to promote how Linked Data techniques allows governments to publish more, reuse more and combine more data for a fraction of the cost of older methods, she notes. After all, isn’t it economically sensible to try to get a greater ROI out of the millions or even billions of taxpayer dollars that governments spend funding scientific and other research? “That should be made available to other scientists or to the public as Linked Data,” she says, and it doesn’t take long or cost a lot to realize some results from doing so.

Practical recommendations she’ll share during her workshop keynote on Oct. 20 include using 4- and 5-Star Linked Data, for high-quality data sets, to fulfill the promise of open government. This goes beyond many of the trends today to publish data as 1 to 3-star Linked Data, which generally indicates the use of proprietary formats, without context or descriptions, that Hyland says render the information not as useful as data that contains URLs and is linked to other data via URLs. W3C standards are the glue for using URIs to identify things so that others can point to an agency’s data and link it to other data to provide context, says Hyland, and it will be critical to provide very specific recommendations on vocabularies, too. That’s part of the step-by-step guidance across issues, from getting to modeling data, to the top vocabularies used by many government-related projects, Hyland aims to provide.

 

 

About the author

Jennifer Zaino is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology journalism. She has been an executive editor at leading technology publications, including InformationWeek, where she spearheaded an award-winning news section, and Network Computing, where she helped develop online content strategies including review exclusives and analyst reports. Her freelance credentials include being a regular contributor of original content to The Semantic Web Blog; acting as a contributing writer to RFID Journal; and serving as executive editor at the Smart Architect Smart Enterprise Exchange group. Her work also has appeared in publications and on web sites including EdTech (K-12 and Higher Ed), Ingram Micro Channel Advisor, The CMO Site, and Federal Computer Week.

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