Main content

The Open Data Divide: UK & USA lead the world, but others fall behind

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez January 20, 2015
The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has said that even the UK at the top of the table still has a long way to go – are governments ready to be transparent?

Open Data
Credit where credit is due, the UK and the USA are sticking to the open data agenda and, according to a new report, are the most transparent governments in the world.

However, what is notable from the World Wide Web Foundation's second annual 'Open Data Barometer', which looks at the open data progress of 86 countries across the world, is that many governments are reneging on their commitments and are falling behind.

An open data divide is emerging.

Open data is often cited as a key pillar in the public sector's digital revolution. On the one hand the release of data into the public domain allows for the entrepreneurial community to tap into government data and build commercial services that are both for profit and improve the efficiency of public services.

Whilst, on the other hand, it is thought that if there is as much government data in the public domain as possible, this will build trust between public sector bodies and citizens. Transparency and accountability at the heart of government.

However, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web and creator of the World Wide Web Foundation, the organisation that released the report this week, has said that despite the progress of a few, many are falling behind on commitments.

Which also begs the question, are countries and governments really ready for what this open data drive means for accountability? But more on that later...

First, let's deal with the findings of the report – see full details here. The second edition of the Open Data Barometer looks at open data readiness, implementation and impact across 86 countries, and provides a country ranking based on scores in each of these three categories. The World Wide Web Foundation states:

The findings from the newly released report point to a growing divide between those countries able to establish and sustain open data programmes, and those countries where open data activities have stalled, moved backwards or not yet begun.

The UK once again earned the top spot in the Barometer's global rankings this year, followed by the US, Sweden, France and New Zealand. Among developing nations, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil all were praised for strong progress.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee

However, whilst the countries listed above were commended, others were highlighted for dropping a number of places. For example, Kenya fell 27 places on last year down to 49th position, Thailand fell 26 places to 57th position, Iceland fell 14 places down to 31st position and Russia fell 6 places to the 26th spot.

The report notes:

A global movement to make government “open by default” picked up steam in 2013 when the G8 leaders signed an Open Data Charter - promising to make public sector data openly available, without charge and in re-useable formats. In 2014 the G20 largest industrial economies followed up by pledging to advance open data as a tool against corruption, and the UN recognized the need for a “Data Revolution” to achieve global development goals.

However, this second edition of the Open Data Barometer shows that there is still a long way to go to put the power of data in the hands of citizens. Core data on how governments are spending our money and how public services are performing remains inaccessible or paywalled in most countries.

Information critical to fight corruption and promote fair competition, such as company registers, public sector contracts, and land titles, is even harder to get. In most countries, proactive disclosure of government data is not mandated in law or policy as part of a wider right to information, and privacy protections are weak or uncertain.

The World Wide Web Foundation states that some of the key steps needed to ensure the open data revolution progresses include a high level political commitment to the release of data, a sustained investment in supporting and training civil society and entrepreneurs, legal reform and contextualising open data tools and approaches to local needs.

The UK has been a leader in the open data drive since it launched back in 2010 – the open data platform via which it releases much of its information. It also headed up the launch of the Open Government Partnership, which has grown from 8 to 65 countries, and aims to provide guidance and collaboration on how to improve upon the release of public sector data.

However, despite being head of the class, Sir Tim Berners-Lee still believes the UK has some way to go. He told the BBC:

Despite coming top of the rankings, the UK has a long way to go. The release of map data is something where the UK has lagged behind, and you'd think postcodes would be part of the open structure of the UK, but they're not.

The Post Office holds them as being a proprietary format. So, ironically, just a list of places in the UK is not available openly, for free, on the web.

President Obama has also made several commitments to the open data agenda and a recent report from the National Association of State Chief Information Officers found that the US is making progress at state and government agency level.

But what's interesting to note from this week's report is the divide between the countries at the top and those not that far behind in the rankings. For example, the UK received a ranking score of 100, the US a score of 92.66 and Sweden a score of 83.7 in first, second and third place respectively.

However, you jump down to 20th place (which out of 86 countries isn't comparatively that bad), and Israel received a ranking score

of 52.97. Almost half that of the UK. Once you get halfway down the table, the likes of Columbia in 40th place are getting scores of 32.8. There is a clear divide between those at the top of the table that are 'getting it' and those that aren't.

Which begs the question, are these countries ready?

My take

I've just finished watching Channel 4 drama Babylon, which is directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle, and takes a look at how London's Metropolitan Police deals with PR and communications in a world where information isn't controllable anymore.

The democratization of information, where citizens can easily create, share and find information via channels such as Twitter and Facebook has meant that organisations that are used to controlling what they release and when they release it, are now in turmoil.

Open data is scary for countries and governments because it keeps pace with the internet and puts the power of information in the citizen's hands. If you are a government that operates off the back of hiding information and controlling what is released, then an open data agenda will be terrifying. And I'm fairly certain it is culture that is holding many back. You are truly accountable.

You can see the UK is starting to get it – but it doesn't make for easy conversations. When the Cabinet Office messes up, they now aren't in control of the messaging. They have to have an honest conversation about what went wrong.

But if governments embrace this and release information – good or bad – when it is made available, trust will be built. I'm certain this is the future.

A grey colored placeholder image