A Right To Data Is Meaningless Without Knowledge Of What Is Available
By Jeff C. Palmer
We agree with the statement that "a right to data is meaningless without knowledge of what is available" and with the proposals to create a central, user-friendly catalogue or inventory of all the information available. We think that this should:
- Include information of what is available not only in central government datasets but also in those of more fragmented organizations such as local authorities or the police to allow comparisons.
- Be easily searchable with common sense terms.
- Include notes on the freshness of the data and how regularly users can expect it to be updated (i.e. is it one-off, published quarterly - including the next publication date)
- Include links to other, related, data sets if it is part of a historical data series (or with other breakdowns such as regions or relevant agencies)
- Be presented in a user-friendly format as well as in raw format, where possible - including star rating of accessibility.
- Allow user feedback, ranking interest/value of datasets and opportunities to post relevant applications based on the data. Using such approaches can help make the data inventories self-regulating and cut down on the effort required to manage and maintain them.
The Government may also wish to highlight, signpost or even implement visualization tools in order to encourage less-experienced users to access and manipulate the information.
At a high level, individuals (by which we mean in particular the specialist developer group) will comply if the standards are sensible, cost of compliance is low, and compliance itself does not cause further interoperability problems. A useful step would be to encourage consistent schemas for particular data sets (for example bus timetables) and to ensure they are interoperable with other, related sets (for example train timetables). We recommend clear lists of the schemas with links to their definition should be published on the same website as the catalogue. In addition, consistent master data across all relevant Government datasets (for example around the naming of hospitals or stations) would be helpful as it will aid navigability, usability and interoperability. Another step to increase usability would be to ensure that key data sets are available (and made easy to interrogate in a programmatic fashion) on government servers as well as for download. This makes the building of mobile phone applications, for example, much easier when the information is regularly updated and means that individual users do not have to download the entire data set. It is appreciated that the cost of supporting such a service may require restrictions on the quantity of queries that can be made by an individual service; this might be addressed by the use of a private API key for each service user in a similar fashion to Google Maps. In addition, we would suggest that the government adopts and communicates to employees clear information governance measures in order to achieve compliance and to ensure usability and interoperability. Based on our experience of working with public and private organizations service we have developed information governance frameworks that can be applied to US public services and the open data agenda. The information governance framework examines measures to maintain the privacy, confidentiality, security, quality and integrity of data. Two of these areas are of particular relevance to achieving usability and interoperability:
1. Rigorous data hygiene standards should be adopted to improve data quality. Ensuring data quality is a major challenge-particularly in complex, environments with multiple IT systems not all of which share common technical, data, communication or terminology standards. The key to ensuring data quality in these environments is to develop standardized interfaces and models that allow IT subsystems to share information effectively. Effective system architectures should include for key components:
- Manual and automatic processes that detect and correct errors in information efficiently and effectively. Emphasis should be placed on incentivizing and motivating public service professionals to understand the implications of poor data quality and to change behavior to enhance data quality over time.
- Validation rules that verify that data conforms to a set of specifications regarding format, quality, integrity, accuracy and structure.
- Use open standards for the recording and coding of data to promote a high level of data quality through similar data processing across multiple component systems.
2. Quality data must preserve its integrity when stored, transferred or retrieved. Unauthorized modification of data, poor-quality source code and non-interoperable subsystems all undermine data integrity and thus the open data agenda. Effective information governance architectures to maintain data integrity should include:
- Processes to test source code to eliminate bugs (that may result in data loss or data corruption);
- Processes that identify and mitigate security risks;
- A governance function that works across silos to develop and enforce common standards, protocols and processes to enable syntactic, semantic and/or process interoperability;
- A standards-driven system architecture conforms to open or common messaging, infrastructure, communication, application, data and clinical terminology standards.
Standards should be established to ensure that the data gathered is consistent and easily comparable between agencies, public service providers and departments. It would also be worth considering the feasibility of synchronizing the dates when the data is refreshed to ensure consistency for further comparisons.
Given the current Freedom of Information requirements, public service providers already balance a commitment to openness with a need to respect privacy and security. We believe many of the same principles can be followed to ensure a commitment to open data.
There are three main areas where we would expect government to collect and publish data on a routine basis - in particular where the publication:
- Improves outcomes and increases the productivity of public service providers through informed comparison;
- Supports the choice agenda - by informing citizens of different providers and alternative services thus underpinning market;
- Makes accountability real for citizens and encourages greater engagement with public services and government.
We think the most important thing government can do to stimulate the market for open data is to make the data itself more consumable and accessible. Data is most useful to the citizen when it tells a story and is meaningful. By investing limited resources to transform from "data" into "intelligence" the Government can lead by example and show the potential of data sets. It will also help inspire entrepreneurs to explore potential uses of public data for commercial benefit, thus driving economic growth. It may also be worth going a step further and transforming a few crucial datasets into data-mashed "services" by making them very easily consumable. This will help establish a market and stimulate demand for further publication of datasets.
Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of https://Ebookschoice.com. Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.