I recently hosted an Executive Breakfast Seminar on Open Data in Ottawa, Canada and was pleasantly surprised by the greater than expected turnout by senior government personnel wanting to learn more about the risk, challenges, opportunities and benefits of Canada's Open Government Action Plan. (see data.gc.ca)
Like many other jurisdictions, including 30 countries, and hundreds of municipal and state/provincial level government organizations, Canada followed the lead of the United States, who launched its' open data portal in 2009. (see data.gov) Starting with the release of just a few hundred datasets, the Open Data movement in government entities around the world has led to the release of literally million's of data sets on all topics ranging from socio-economic data and geo-spatial datasets to extensive details on government operations.
The Canadian approach to Open Government relies on 3 pillars. Open Data, Open Information, and Open Dialog. Open Data is about offering government data in a more useful format to enable citizens, the private sector and non-government organizations to leverage it in innovative and value-added ways. Open Information is about proactively releasing information, including on government activities, to Canadians on an ongoing basis. By proactively making government information available it will be easier to find and more accessible for Canadians. Open Dialogue, which is about giving Canadians a stronger say in government policies and priorities, and expanding engagement through Web 2.0 technologies. (my next blog will talk about why Canada differentiates between Open Information and Open Data)
For many in the room, the session was a sobering sort of wake-up call, as I pointed out to participants the obvious risks associated with releasing open data sets such as the liabilities and potential embarrassment associated with releasing erroneous data, to the not-so apparent risks such as foreign intelligence organizations combining disparate data sets in such a way as to expose national security vulnerabilities. (the example I used was a case where a vulnerability was exposed by comparing weather data with emergency response statistics and geo-spatial data - resulting in the ability to predict the impact of threatening weather on the security apparatus) In addition to the direct risks from the data itself, we also discussed the potential political risks of government-wide releases of certain datasets, that because they lack a common architecture and meta-data standards. Exposing these practices (or lack thereof) could create additional workload and embarrassment for the stewards responsible for those datasets, and more significantly for the political apparatus behind it.
While there was much discussion around the downsides, there was also widespread acknowledgement of the benefits and opportunities, the most significant of which was enabling the constituent citizens and industry to generate economic advantage and innovation by leveraging the rich datasets now freely accessible.
For data management practitioners - the Open Data imperative provides the perfect business case, and timing to introduce enhanced data management practices in government sector organizations. Data Management professionals need to be front and centre in these initiatives, putting in place to practices to ensure that Open Data sets are consistently architected, described and delivered with a defensible and competent approach to ensuring their quality. Data stewards need to be clearly identifiable as they will become the focal point for departments and agencies being faced with questions and challenges about their data. Finally, as always, none of these things are going to happen without an effective governance mechanism to ensure that these practices are being properly employed.
To us as data management professionals, we have always understood the compelling value proposition of improved data management practices for all organizations, however the lack of customer focus, and a profit imperative has made it difficult to convince government decision-makers to direct more investment in this area. The Open Data imperative breathes considerable new life into the strength of imperative; the time has come for us to "Carpe diem".