Saturday, January 3, 2009

Free our Public Data

Freeing Government data

The Show Us a Better Way competition announced its winners earlier this month. In doing so, it highlighted the imaginative ways in which public sector information can be used to solve the needs of citizens. It was setup by the UK’s Power of Information Task Force and asked citizens to outline what they would like to see done with public information. The best ideas were to be funded to the tune of £20,000 in order to develop the idea to the next level.
UK Government authorities are making gigabytes of public information available, and the essence of the competition was to identify new applications to visualize and make use of this raw data.

The District of Columbia in the US ran a similar competition called Apps For Democracy in which they solicited innovations using data from the Office of the Chief Technology Officer. This authority pioneered a new approach to public data with the creation of a CityWide Datawarehouse Data Catalog. It was established in 2006 as a means of allowing free access to various Government data sets. At the time, City Administrator Robert Bobb outlined the guiding principal for the program as enabling:

"residents to better understand our government’s activities, thereby offering more opportunities to participate in improving the quality of life and promoting economic development in the District,”

The CityDW Data Catalog and Data Feeds provide access to current permit, crime, service request and geographical data in multiple formats including Google Maps, Google Earth, XML or spreadsheet format. Also, RSS feeds are available for live data feeds.

The Apps for democracy competition awarded prizes and recognition of new applications that visualised this data in a manner useful for all. The competition resulted in 47 Applications being built in 30 days, and an estimated 4,000% return on investment. Some of the innovations were enlightening in how they presented new ways to visualize the raw City datawarehouse data.

A couple of applications concentrated on purchase order data to make it more easily assessable and informative. One application - - allows users to search 73,946 purchases by agency, supplier and category. This can provide for accountability of procurement decisions by the general public and other agencies. Another entry displayed the procurement data as a facebook application in which individual purchase orders could be clicked on and discussed. This allows for a level of debate on particular purchase decisions, and provides greater transparency of what authorities are purchasing and with whom.


Transparent Government and the Public Data Movement

Government authorities around the world are searching for new ways to improve service delivery, drive efficiencies and reduce cost. They’re seeking more ways in which to engage with the public and make the inner workings of Government more transparent. Government data, combined with the power of Web 2.0 tools has the power to transform citizens from mere recipients of government services, into partners in their creation and improvement. The applications and ideas created as part of the Show us a Better way and AppsforDemocracy competitions highlight what can be achieved if public data is democratized by making it freely available and reusable in web friendly formats.

W. David Stephenson outlines some of the benfits of freeing public data as

-- more informed policy debate, grounded in fact, rather than rhetoric
-- greater transparency and less corruption
-- optimizing program efficiency and reducing costs:
-- new perspectives, especially when "the wisdom of crowds" emerges.

SAP and Freeing Public Data

Following the launch of the Innocentive program, SAP made it clear innovation, and concepts such as crowdsourcing, were high on their list of priorities. Consequently, I believe SAP should empower Public cector organisations to free their data by making backoffice data available in accessible formats such as RSS, XML and Atom.

The SAP platform is integral to many Government departments around the world, and stores many aspects of the data presented within the City Datawarehouse e.g. Purchase Orders. Government organizations need to allow other outside agencies/individuals exploit and reuse their SAP data in ways not imagined internally. SAP offers many tools to extract data e.g. SAP BI’s Openhub/APD functionality, but making live feeds like RSS etc. available is difficult. Exporting live and continuously updated streams of data to the internet (in RSS, XML formats) should be easier and more standard than is currently the case. These streams could then be subscribed to using RSS readers, or tools such as ESME/Twitter.

Government authorities should leverage the SAP platform as a base upon which others can create value. This concept is outlined by a group of academics at Princeton University in a paper called Government Data and the Invisible Hand:

"Today, government bodies consider their own websites to be a higher priority than technical infrastructures that open up their data for others to use. We argue that this understanding is a mistake. It would be preferable for government to understand providing reusable data, rather than providing websites, as the core of its online publishing responsibility."

An example

I’m currently working with a Government authority on an SAP Process improvement project. The authority wants more visibility and analysis over their spend. As such, we’ll be creating various SAP BI reports displaying purchase order information with category, vendor and amount details. This information will be displayed in reports within their Internal Portal. However, it would generate much more value if it was available in raw format on their external website. This would the data to be dissected and mashed up by others. While, we as consultants can advise on how data should be visualized - in graphs, pie-charts etc - we cannot think of all the possible permutations, or how the public would like to see such data. Different public sector entities or individuals may be interested in ploting vendor addresses on google maps to see which area of the country the greatest spend is in. This could help in directing procurement towards vendors in economically deprived regions if this was a Government strategy. Others may want to see various categories of spend benchmarked against private sector organizations with similar employees. The idea is that it doesn’t matter how we might present the data to the general public. What matters is the data can be exploited by others to interpret how they wish. Sites like could be created by harnessing “the wisdom of crowds” concept to find creative new approaches to interpreting data. The resulting data visualizations can highlight inefficiencies or anomalies and can serve to gain the trust of the public.


The Obama campaign, in its technology white paper, makes transparency one of its central goals. It will ‘..use cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability and participation..’. A change in how Public sector authorities treat their data and how SAP technology facilitates its distribution across the internet, is necessary to create a more open dialog between Government and its citizens.

No comments:

Post a Comment