Editorial

Are governments turning their backs on open data?

In its latest report on global public sector attitudes to openness, Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation finds some negative trends

Posted 24 May 2017 by

Global governmental support for open data as a way to deliver accountability, innovation and social impact may be under threat.

That’s the sober warning from the World Wide Web Foundation, an organisation founded by Web creator Tim Berners-Lee which this week published the fourth edition of its Open Data Barometer, which it clams is a “global snapshot of how governments are using open data”.

Set up to “build a better Web for all”, the Foundation is particularly interested in tracking open data, which it defines as data available for everyone to use and reuse, and which allows citizens to hold governments to account for the decisions they take and the money they spend.

The bad news is that it sees little progress on the agenda, with its study, which covers 115 countries, finding that early open data leaders are stalling “and even backsliding in their delivery” of open data.

For example, it states, the scores of even the best rated – the Nordic countries and the US – have fallen this year.

And even the UK, “a traditional open data leader”, has seen what it claims to be “worrying changes” in “key policies”.

Globally, fewer than one in 10 datasets studied are fully open, a datum unchanged from its equivalent probe last year, a fact it says shows most countries are “failing to make any progress on delivering vital public information”.

The Barometer finds that data on key accountability metrics such as government spending, public contracts, company ownership and land ownership are among the least open and often poor quality, for example, while government spending data — which helps people track where their taxes go — is open in just 3% of countries.

To get back on track, the Foundation says policy makers need to leaders must focus on opening up the data that matters most: data that can help solve people’s most pressing problems, from transport to education to healthcare.

Equally, governments must make sure these benefits are for everyone, through dedicated efforts to involve marginalised groups and ensure they can take advantage of the data available.

The organisation’s Policy Director, Craig Fagan said that, “The case for open data is clear: citizens have a right to access the data their taxes pay for, and use it to engage in public decisions and improve their lives.

“Governments need to stop dragging their feet and make government data open by default.”

Commenting on the findings, Foundation senior researcher and report author Carlos Iglesias added, “It’s frustrating to see virtually no improvement since last year and some early leaders turn their backs on the open agenda.

“This failure to progress is a missed opportunity for governments to be transparent with citizens and win back trust. Yet, with some relatively simple steps, governments could drastically improve their scores – for instance, adding open licences to existing datasets would double the number of open datasets.”