Open Data -at its most basic concept- is the sharing of information freely. Open Government Platforms — also referred to as OGPs — have the potential to improve transparency in government agencies, inspire citizen engagement, improve economic growth, and even bolster accountability across many spectrums of service.
There are primary and secondary impacts that Open Data can have on local, national, and even international economies. Some of these “trickle down” economic benefits can even help bolster Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for an entire country.
According to data, secondary job creation and financial stimulus to an economy have the potential for lasting positive effects that go far beyond many general concerns some may posit with regard to security of information shared on open platforms.
Why “openness” is an integral part of modern society.
This idea of “openness” is not necessarily a new revelation, but at the government level it’s considered somewhat unique. Considering the world has emerged on the other side of the Cold War, the concept of Open Data within government agencies can create negative impressions and connotations from those who may not fully appreciate or understand what Open Data actually is.
Generally speaking, Open Data is designed to provide information that bolsters the “common good” of a particular society. It is, in short, a collaboration between government, private corporations and businesses, and the citizens of that country (and now well beyond its borders).
Thanks to the explosive expansion of digital technologies, Open Data has seen massive growth in not only support but also the direct sharing of information across a spectrum of platforms.
With an Open Government Platform (OGP), new opportunities exist for regular citizens, small businesses, and other organizations to help improve the efficiency of the governments that preside over them as well as gain information that may have, in the past, been withheld from them.
Where did Open Data originate?
While the first truly Open Government Platform was initially developed with the Geospatial Positioning Service (GPS) project conducted by the United States government in 1973, the seeds for what is now viewed as modern Open Government Platforms and Open Data were planted many years earlier.
When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the Space War was ramping up. In order to keep up, the United States created the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA. The goal was to help the U.S. maintain a technological and strategic advantage. After a decade of research, DARPA launched ARPANET, the first network of geographically separated computers that we’re able to share information across a digital landscape.
The first successful operation of this new ARPANET was completed in 1969. That same year, the Interface Messenger Processor (IMP) was created. This IMP was designed to help ensure that in the event of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, the entire ARPANET system and all related information contained therein would survive.
The First Electronic Computer
In 1946, the first electronic computer was invented. It was housed at the University of Pennsylvania and was initially designed to calculate potential ballistic trajectories from missiles that could be launched at the United States. Eventually, this led to the creation of a radar tracking system in 1954 and, ultimately, more business and engineering applications for computer systems throughout the 1960s.
Geospatial Positioning Service
Because of the success of ARPANET, the U.S. government created the Geospatial Positioning Service (GPS) for specifically military purposes. However, in the 1980s the U.S. government opened GPS to the general public.
The goal was to help promote public good as the overall benefits of allowing the general public to have access to GPS was not only immediately revealed, it would also allow a plethora of navigation and location services as well as innovations to be developed.
This decision to open GPS to the general public is considered by many to be the first Open Government Platform and ever since various governments around the world have been creating more OGPs for their citizens and others.
While ARPANET may have been the first technical digital network sharing of information on geographically unconnected devices, the Internet that people use and know today was developed in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee. Berners-Lee invented what was then known as the World Wide Web.
He essentially built a network across which Open Data Platforms could eventually be designed and built. His original intention was to create a network that would make it easier for scientists and researchers to share discoveries and findings, but its original intention was to create this network between universities and certain institutions around the world.
Tim Berners-Lee launched the first webpage in 1990 and within two years people outside of a specific organization were finally being invited to join this “online community.” But Berners-Lee was not done. He had another idea in mind and helped establish the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which was the immediate predecessor to what is now known as the modern-day Internet.
The key focus for Berners-Lee was to create a platform where information could be freely shared using modern technology.
Where did government step into the process of Open Data?
While the U.S. government has been credited with creating the first Open Government Platform, the first time the term “Open Data” was used is credited to an American scientific agency in 1995.
Throughout the course of the next decade-plus a couple of years, Open Data gained steam. Finally, in 2007, Open Data was clearly defined and this was presented to U.S. Presidential candidates in 2008.
President Barack Obama signed three presidential memorandums supporting the cause of Open Data and Open Government in 2009.
Open Data and its Impact on Economic Growth
Open Data almost immediately began having a direct impact on economies in nations that had been utilizing this concept. In Denmark, for example, after authorizing OGP initiatives, it had a direct and positive influence for the development of private sectors, helping to spur innovation and the creation of new products.
In the United States, a key focus was to increase governmental transparency which would, in effect, also encourage more engagement by its citizens.
An Improvement in Transparency
It is no secret that many citizens of numerous countries around the world become skeptical about spending habits, budgets, and other fiscal matters involving their respective governments. It has been a challenge, in a manner of speaking, for regular citizens and even organizations to help hold their local, state, and national governments accountable for every dollar, Franc, Deutschmark, Yen, or other currency it spends.
By increasing government transparency, it helps to improve fiscal responsibility among government officials at almost every level. In some cases, however, this increased transparency didn’t improve these factors but rather encouraged leaders to seize activities that could create doubt among citizens who had previously expressed loyalty to them.
Encouraging Citizen Engagement
Governments that don’t have positive citizen engagement in the creation of policies, oversight, and overall leadership are governments that have the potential to run amok, out of control, and lean toward a more dictatorial ideology.
By helping to stir more citizen engagement, Open Government Platforms naturally have a tendency to create a stronger partnership between citizens and government officials. By being held more accountable (or, to put it more aptly, providing easier access to information to the general public), citizens are often inspired to become more engaged, truly believing what they do makes a difference.
An ancillary benefit of Open Government Platforms and Open Data is that it allows citizens the chance to be more diligent with the financial resources they have when seeking out various products or services, which could include insurance, property taxes on vehicles, and even seeking out specific items because they can compare prices and services more easily.
Improving Efficiency Within Government Agencies
Some of the direct and indirect benefits that Open Data have within government agencies is -as mentioned- helping to improve efficiency. When government servicemen and servicewomen and agencies understand that citizens (the general public) will have access to the same fiscal information they do, there is a greater chance of increased responsibility with regard to spending.
There’s also an opportunity for average citizens to speak up and provide information to their government officials about better deals, where money might be saved elsewhere, and so forth.
When the public can scrutinize government spending, it has the potential to create a more frugal atmosphere at various government levels. It also provides a direct and immediate opportunity to help better combat corruption, which has been a significant challenge in many governments at all levels around the world.
Some Indirect Effects of Open Data
Not only does Open Data help to reduce potential corruption in government, it has also been able to stimulate economic growth, especially in underdeveloped and disenfranchised regions. This case in point was made clear in Kenya.
Under President Mwai Kibaki, the government collaborated with a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Business School to open up data that had been previously closed, and as a result they determined that funds meant to stimulate economic growth in more underdeveloped regions of the country had been instead directed to the wealthiest communities.
By correcting this injustice, Open Data and an Open Government Platform was able to help foster more economic opportunities in previously disenfranchised communities.
Another significant indirect effect of OGPs involve business development and the increase in production of various products, which directly stimulate GDP and economic growth for a nation.
The “Domino Effect”
Just as when knocking over one domino in a row will cause the rest to fall in sequence, a country that establishes Open Data or an OGP have found that it immediately inspires more OGP initiatives.
Brazil is a great example of this. When they established their Transparency Platform, there was more pressure from its citizens to spread this to other branches of the government and each of these also proved to be successful.
The Interconnectedness Between OGP and AI
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Open Government Platforms are interconnected and are expected to grow at a significant rate in the coming years. Numerous experts in these related fields believe that in order to help AI grow and become a more effective platform across just about any segment of society, Open Data is an essential component of that.
Currently, with regard to Artificial Intelligence design and innovation, data is considered an intellectual property right. That means it is only available to those directly working on a specific project.
This limits Open Data availability and, as a consequence, AI development. As that changes, though, AI developments are expected to increase in scope and pace.
Open Government Platforms and Open Data can offer a significant benefit to society overall. While still in its relative infancy, the growth and expansion of Open Data has already proven positive across many aspects of government and private life.
As more governments and institutions embrace Open Data, the benefits for the general public will likely only increase as a result.
Joseph is a senior advisor at the Senate of Canada. Joseph enjoys writing, blogging and teaching. You can follow Joseph via Twitter @josephsoares.