3:03pm

Tue October 23, 2012
Government transparency

5 ways big data can build better governments

How big a deal is big data?

It's pretty big. The question is how we should be handling all the massive amounts of information we’re collecting. The ubiquity of computers and the exponential growth in their processing power has made this a hot topic in just about every field of human endeavor, including government.

Big data touches everything from campaign contributions, to budgets, employment, environmental regulations, and corporate responsibility.

Experts from around the globe are talking about it this week in Albany, at the 6th annual International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance (ICEGOV).

The conference brings together thinkers from more than 50 countries, and this is the first time it's being held in the United States.

On Tuesday a panel discussion on open government delved into how countries can make the most out of releasing data to the public. Here are some of their ideas:

1. Raw data needs to become useful knowledge

Wayne Moses Burke is the executive director of the Open Forum Foundation. He says it's critical to turn all that data into information that people can actually understand and use.

“We’re in danger of being swamped by data,” says Burke. “Data analytics are going to be critically important, [the field of] data science is going to be critically important. But what’s also going to be important is knowing the questions to ask and knowing how to connect the kinds of data that are available to real social and human and market problems.”

2. Governments must shift from a culture of secrecy to openness

Samia Melhem is a senior information officer with the World Bank. She says countries are beginning to get more comfortable with the idea of releasing more information.

“We are moving from a world where in the 50s, 60s, and 70s secrecy was it, to a world where all of a sudden it’s all about openness, and that shift is not easy.”

She says particularly in the developing world, governments need to get better at explaining precisely where public money is being spent.

“From our perspective [it’s] budget data, public procurement, big ticket [items]. Where is that money going? ... Where is that road being built? Where is that school being built?”

3. Websites should be user-friendly

Anyone who has ever tried to navigate a government website filled with documents and spreadsheets knows that these sites can be frustrating and sometimes even fairly useless.

Barbara Ubaldi is with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“In terms of transparency, I think the biggest challenge for many countries is still making data really open. Many governments create websites. They call them open government websites. They provide some information, but then the information is not really open.”

4. Distribute stuff that computers can use (a.k.a machine readable data)

Joel Gurin is the chair of the White House Smart Disclosure Task force. He says if the data is difficult for a computer to analyze, then it’s not very useful.

“A classic example of what is not really machine readable data would be if you’re disclosing information on credit card plans (and this was how this was originally done) by simply having every credit card company in the country send a PDF copy of the same disclosure that they send every credit card user and doing that once a quarter. What you then have is a data collection, but it’s a collection of a whole bunch of PDFs that you can’t exactly feed this to a computer and have it do any kind of analysis.”

5. Governments will need to open up, in order to be seen as legitimate

Burke believes that in the next few decades, governments will have to embrace this idea of transparency in order to be seen as legitimate.

“I really look at open government as being in the place that democracy was, as an idea ... Even the worst dictatorships in the world have elections. They win by 99 percent, but they know that in order to be seen as legitimate, they at least have to go through the steps. I think open government is just beginning that stage ... If you're not releasing data that ties to accountability, if you're not engaging your citizens, if you're not doing all these things, you're not actually a legitimate government anymore.”