5th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (V). Access to public information and Social Networking Sites

Notes from the 5th Internet, Law and Politics Conference: The Pros and Cons of Social Networking Sites, organized by the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on July 6th and 7th, 2009. More notes on this event: idp2009.

Access to public information and Social Networking Sites
Chaired by Ismael Peña-López

e-Government at W3C
José Manuel Alonso, CTIC Foundation / World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Embedded video at http://ictlogy.net/?p=2415


There is an increasing trend demanding open public information, raw public information, instead of one stop shops to access public services or public information that has already been “treated” or “prepared” for the citizen. Why should administrations limit the interactions with their citizens?

Governments should shift from being owners of data to being curators of data.

Benefits of freeing data are many, arguably being the most relevant one the “Many minds principle”: there’ll always be someone that will find out a way to reuse data that you wouldn’t have even figured.

Three steps to reuse: identify relevant data, represent them so that they can be used, and expose them to the wider world.

The District of Columbia public data set, and and example of its reuse: CrimeinDC. These applications have been estimated to have a 4000% ROI. See also MySociety.org and the Sunlight Foundation.

Data.gov, the flagship of the US Government on open data.

If data are put in appropriate formats, they can be syndicated, aggregated, etc. And the costs of doing this, remixing, reshaping, etc. are almost zero to governments: once data are published, it’s private interests (for or not for profit) with do the rest.

Linked Data: its principle is to empower data so that they can be interlinked and enriched. The idea is to link a data set with another one, and that one yet with another one, etc. This should be able to be done automatically, so when applications accessed a data set, it “browsed” several data sets to build a new combined data set… and all of this made transparently for the user.

Challenges are many: alignment with the mission and strategy, there are some costs, inner capabilities of the administration, security, integrity, persistence of data (that data can always be found in the same place), licensing models and their compatibilities, legacy systems, standardization, etc.

Public data reutilization: Yes, we want
Alberto Ortiz de Zárate Tercero, Director of Citizen Service, Basque Government

In 1833 journalist Mariano José de Larra wrote Vuelva usted mañana (Please come back tomorrow) about the Administration’s inefficiency. Almost 200 years later, we’ve been adding technology to processes but the Administration remains the same. Our goal should be to make this statement obsolete by boosting efficiency and citizen satisfaction.

e-Government is somehow the same path of the modernization of the Administration but with an opposite approach, focussing on people and knowledge instead of processes and technology.

Usually, Administrations focus their e-Government strategies on the online availability of their public services, beginning with income-generating services. On the other hand, the stress has also been put more on G2B services rather than on the citizen.

And, do we know how much e-Government services are used?

What we do know is that a lot of money has been spent in government portals but the efficacy and the efficiency is yet to be made evident.

Shift from e-Government to Open Government (o-Government): services centred in the citizen and co-designed with the citizen; transparency and accountability; innovation fostering. And open data is a pre-requisite of o-Government, being a real exercise of transparency settling democracy. Open data reduce information asymmetry, firms get access to wealthy information and a new kind of citizen emerges: the infomediary.

If data is open, there is no need to agree (neither with the government, nor amongst citizens) on what services need to be set up: emergent initiatives will be able to set them up at their own will, as the resources are plainly available. For instance, Apps for Democracy.

Reusing public information for change
Jordi Graells, Deputy Director of Content and Innovation in the Catalan government’s (Presidential Department) Citizen Service Office.

Embedded video at http://ictlogy.net/?p=2415


Innovation should be aimed at creating value, to transform knowledge to create value.

Gary Hamel: (new) leadership is about enabling rather than doing, is about distributing power, about managing the collective intelligence. On a managing approach, professionals should be put first, then the customer and then the stakeholders… which can easily be translated into the field of the Administration.

But the abundance of barriers and constraints lead us to empowerment through open data. And one of the main enablers of open data is open licences, so that these data cannot only be accessed but also (re)used by anyone.

In 2007 the Catalan Government begins using Creative Commons licenses in their publications. In 2009 the Catalan Government agrees that all publications (whenever there are intellectual propertyh rights) will be using CC licenses — being the optimum in the long run putting all public content in the public domain.

Roadmap of the Catalan Government:

  • Law 37/2007 for the reuse of public information, adding disclaimers to public information clarifying how it can be reused
  • Put information into open data bases so that data can be reused, with several options depending of he kind of database (just data, access to collections of third parties’ materials, etc.)
  • CC licensing for content with IP rights

But it’s not only about administrative change, but about citizen participation and engagement: the Catalan Government shares knowledge in social networking sites where people can participate and engage in collaborative work: communities of practice, social aggregators, etc..

The e-Catalunya project now holds +15,000 members in 54 big groups/categories and several dozen specific working groups.


Idoia Llano: How is the Government of Catalonia’s blog going to be managed? Jordi Graells: It is not exactly the Government’s blog, but the “blog of the Internet experience of the Government”. It will be a corporate blog, not a blog (or a collection of blogs) of the members of the Government. So, it will be like any other communication channel.

Ricard Espelt: How is it, if open data and open platforms have such benefits, that Governments do not use them? Why Governments keep on using customized and closed applications instead of already existing “cloud” applications? Jordi Graells: Security is an issue. An other one is political show off (e.g. it’s “better” a good huge portal, rather than small spread applications that don’t even hold the institution’s logo).

Agustí Cerrillo: technologically speaking reuse of public information is possible and, increasingly, the law has also been updated this way. But it is not this way at the organizational level. So, what organizational change should take place? Jordi Graells: Communities of practice are proving to be a good driver for change. Alberto Ortiz de Zárate: it is very important to convince the leaders, and to do it through small successes and benchmarking others’ small successes. José Manuel Alonso: Act on a two-level basis: at the higher direction basis, agreeing on political strategies; and at the implementation and most operative basis, agreeing on the how-tos.

Ismael Peña-López: In a welfare state like ours, why should I participate and “work for the government”, if I already pay my taxes? Why should I if I won’t change the world? Alberto Ortiz de Zárate: It’s about small but really effective changes, especially in those places where resources are really scarce and small projects can have huge impact.

Marta Cantijoch: Aren’t we promoting a new digital divide — accompanied by a democratic divide — where people that can code, understand the new “sharing paradigm”, etc. can participate in this open society and the rest of the citizenry will be set aside? José Manuel Alonso: The idea is not the creation of a new elite of citizens, but to enable a new set of infomediaries that can provide more and better public services for the citizen. Jordi Graells: These new services that José Manuel Alonso refers to can be new cultural services, learning and research materials, weather data, more and better communication channels, etc.

Q: How can we encourage participation? Alberto Ortiz de Zárate: Historically, participation has been limited to sending out ideas and vote them, which is not really encouraging. If the Administration allows for a creation of new public services, new public value, the citizenry should be more eager to participate as their impact would be much higher.

Q: We should be aware of the risks of sharing information, especially private information. How do we avoid these risks? Jordi Graells: There seems to be an increasing trend towards a genuine change that needs to be managed, but that seems unstoppable.

More information

5th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (2009)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “5th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (V). Access to public information and Social Networking Sites” In ICTlogy, #70, July 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=2415

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