Seizing the opportunity of open data

Written by Léonard Mouny, State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation

While open data are not necessarily “big data”, the closely linked concepts offer interesting possibilities of reshaping the relations between citizens and their government, not only by increasing the transparency, but also by fostering innovation, for example through the development of new applications that can improve the quality of public services. Let’s take a look at the open data movement in Switzerland, with one of the directors of Opendata.ch, Antoine Logean.

Opendata

What is the Open Data movement?

The Open Data movement took on significant momentum and international visibility with the Obama administration. The objectives are to facilitate access to data accumulated by the state, in order to stimulate their reuse by the public. Government gathers an impressive amount of data, and this process is financed by the public. Nevertheless only a small portion of data is used. The goal of Open Data activists is to help make these data easily available to the public so that they could make something useful, use up their full potential by creating value through new business and new services.

By explaining what the Open Data is, it is important to make a clear distinction between public and personal data. Personal data as defined by the Federal act on Data Protection  is information relating to an identified or identifiable person (name, address, social security number, religion, health related data, …): this type of personal data should be kept private and secure. On the other hand, public data includes information that the government gathers about environment, science, education, transportation, and so on, could benefit a larger part of the population by becoming accessible..

Who is concerned by Open Data? And what type of action does Opendata.ch undertake to reach its goals?

Here we can distinguish between two main types of actors. Firstly, there are data providers, i.e. the administration and the public authorities. Secondly, there are the data consumers, i.e. citizens, researchers, journalists, industry. Our main goal is to promote the opening of data. To reach this goal, our association Opendata.ch acts on three levels. On the first level, we have contact with data providers. In other words, we lobby politicians and diverse organisations about the opening of data. They often need support to grasp all the implication linked to information technology legislation. We support parliamentarians with their motions. On a second level, we connect data provider and data consumers by organizing public hackathons, like the Swiss Open Cultural Data Hackathon that took place in Bern in February 2015. These are co-creation workshops, where open data is reused to create new applications and services. These workshops are organized two to three times a year, bring together people with different talents to develop and showcase projects, and create an Open Data community in Switzerland. On the third level, we organize a conference with the goal to heighten awareness of both the population and the authorities about open data. The next national conference will take place on July 1st at the University of Bern.

Is Opendata.ch aligned with political parties?

Opendata.ch, as the official Swiss Chapter of Open Knowledge, is an apolitical association. Upon request we assist the politicians for the execution of a project. We have contact with the political world through individuals, not through their parties.

What kind of contact do you have with public administration? And at what level?

Our contacts with the public administration take place essentially at the federal level in Bern. We assist the parliamentarians to develop their political strategies about open data, which may differ from the Federal Council’s strategy, since this hasn’t changed in the last 20 years. We have played a central role in development of a Swiss open data catalog where MeteoSwiss, Swisstopo, the Swiss Federal office of Statistic and the Swiss Federal Archives will publish all their data under the same platform. In this case. Opendata.ch has suggested and driven a pilot project based on CKAN, a mature platform developed by Open Knowledge, itself a non-profit organization founded in 2004. The development of such a portal, which contains an index of data from multiple and very different federal sources is a key milestone is the development of the Open Data movement in Switzerland. The official version of the Swiss federal open data portal will soon enter into operation.

What kind of contact do you have with public administration at the cantonal level?

Even though there is an officer responsible for data transparency and protection in each Canton, the first entities driving the movement in Swizerland are big cities at a communal level like Zurich, Bern or Geneva. Once open data became officially part of the e-Government strategy at the federal level, the Cantons could start playing a bigger role in the implementation of a modern open data policy. Indeed, each Canton produces its own data, and by using the CKAN architecture each can develop its own data catalog whose content can be aggregated on the federal level on the common platform.

What kind of contact do you have with the media?

We maintain contact with the media to reach and raise awareness amongst the public opinion. Furthermore, as journalism evolves, the media are increasing their demand for new data. They are developing new types of storytelling i.e. data journalism [ed. This movement in journalism gives more importance to the numerical data, for the production and distribution of information]. In Switzerland, we have contact with journalists from Le Temps, Swiss Televison and Radio, and the NZZ, and many other leading outlets. Internationally, the New York Times and the Guardian are known for their position promoting open data.

What impact has the open data initiative on transparency?

Concerning transparency, I can give a very concrete example that took place in the United Kingdom. As you may know, a non-negligible number of deaths in hospitals are related to nosocomial infections. To remedy this problem the government required the hospitals to publish their statistics concerning such infections. Based on these statistics, a hospital ranking was established. It turned out to be an impulse for the less efficient hospitals to go to better-ranked hospitals and learn their best practices concerning hygiene. As a result, in a couple of months, the overall situation of hospitals improved. This is a positive effect of transparency: making something more visible in order to motivate actors to take measures.

What is the existing legislation on open data and what are your objectives?

The Freedom of Information Act exists since 2004. On top of this, the Federal Council approved in 2014 on Open Government Data Strategy for the next 4 years. This is for the federal level. On the canton level, the legal definition of open data policy has started. An important aspect in the release of open data by governmental agencies is to explicitly define the open aspect of the data by stating the unlimited reuse of them. Our association is working on that by helping the administration to setup this legal framework.

Is there a link between open data and big data? What are the potential synergies between the two?

Open data intersects with big data. Big data includes basically all the relevant data that can be found on a specific business segment. Open Data might be a part of this, among with other kind of data, like personal or proprietary data. It is nowadays common for a company that wants to optimize its process or its costs to do so through big data analysis. These companies are willing to invest into such methods, because they have proven their efficiency. In difference to open data, big data is mainly exploiting private data to create new business models or to improve existing ones. For example, by using smart analytics approaches a company can better understand and predict customer needs. Notwithstanding these differences, synergies between big data and open data are possible – but state intervention is often needed to make these synergies sustainable. For example, the project SITG in Geneva is financed by the Canton and could be a tremendous source of information for private businesses, with its interactive map of the Canton with a multitude of information layers. Unfortunately, many companies are not aware of its existence. Thus, the duty of the state could be to raise the awareness about them. This is one of the key issues with technologies like open data: it is not enough to develop them: efforts have to be made to increase public awareness about their potential usefulness for innovation. For more information about the differences between Open Data and Big Data see: Big data and open data: what’s what and why does it matter?

open data versus big data

Are open data necessarily created by the state or can private actors also become data providers?

Even though the main providers of data are governments, other entities create valuable data that are not easily accessible and/or exploited. This is the case of international organizations like the World Bank, the OECD, the EU, the WHO and the UN, which produce a big amount of data, not all of which is yet open. Thus, the state does not have the monopoly on the production of potential new sources of open data.

Foto_013Antoine Logean works as data scientist at Swiss Re. His work focuses on the development of new approaches for the use of Big Data in the risk modeling domain. After scientific studies and a PhD in Bio-informatics, he specialized in software development. He is particularly interested in the issues linked to the integration of business data through new architecture with the help of web semantics technologies. He joined the opendata movement at its beginning in Switzerland. He is part of the board of Opendata.ch, where he endorses a double role: activating and involving the open data community in Romandie as well as organizing thematic workshops make.opendata.ch. Follow Antoine on Twitter: @ecolix

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