Overshadowed by arguments about Syria and the vexed but all important 'tie or open necked?' question for the photo calls, the leaders of the G8 countries did good this week with the signing of the Open Data Charter (ODC).
This sets out five principles to act on, with the nations committing to national plans for free government information flows.
The principles are:
- Open Data by Default.
- Quality and Quantity.
- Useable by All.
- Releasing Data for Improved Governance.
- Releasing Data for Innovation.
That's the theory anyway. The practical reality will be judged by the progress made down that route over the next months and years.
But essentially the idea is that by 2015 the ODC signatories expect that:
- All government data will be open by default, and published on a national portal so that it can be easily found and downloaded.
- A registry file listing data and metadata for the portal will be published and an application programming interface (API) provided for developers.
- Data will be released under open license to prevent lock-in and restrictions on information re-use.
- Signatories should use robust and consistent metadata to describe the actual data, and to publish a mapping of this.
- Data will also be fully described and ODC signatories are expected to take into account feedback from users.
There's enough wiggle room left for those who'll need it to leave room for manoeuvre on non-publication of data - the ODC says it recognises:
"There are legitimate reasons why some data cannot be released."
Why it matters
In an article for the UK's Daily Telegraph - not usually the first port of call for information on open data perhaps - Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt emphasised the importance of the deal:
We need this innovation because we face unprecedented challenges as a society: an increasing population with very different demographics in different regions, environmental security, economic stability, growth and more.
We see open data as a crucial part of rising to these challenges. Quite simply open data is an enabler of freedom. Our freedom to trade, to learn, to be secure, and to our well-being as individuals, organisations, and as countries.
Done well, its impact will be material, measurable, and transparent.
But he cautioned that if a new default really is to be established, then progress towards it needs to be carefully monitoried:
We know that countries are serious about open data when they choose to open the data not because it is easy, but because it is hard. So we need to see real evidence of new datasets from these categories at future meetings of the G8.
Countries must engage with citizens, the private sector, and third-sector organisations to identify basic impact data and commit to their release, and develop standards necessary for international comparison while monitoring their delivery of open data against quality indicators.
The idea is that G8 signatories commit to measuring the quality of their open data publication against a localised version of the Open Data Certificate (or an equivalent instrument).
The certificate is made up of two components:
- a visual mark that shows the quality level of the data
- a human and machine-readable description of the data being released
There are four levels of certificates:
- Raw: A great start at the basics of publishing open data.
- Pilot: Data users receive extra support from, and provide feedback to the publisher.
- Standard: Regularly published open data with robust support that people can rely on.
- Expert: An exceptional example of information infrastructure.
Certificates are created online, for free on the basis of publishers answering a series of questions, each of which affect the certificate generated at the end.
Gavin Starks, ODI CEO, said:
"We’re entering an era where open is the new default. Much like the global web of documents has grown over the last 20 years, we are seeing the emergence of a global web of data.
"The certificates will help to create the right conditions for innovation: making open data easier to find, share and use. We want to give confidence to people to invest their time, energy, and money: to build sustainable services that meet user needs, and improve people’s lives.
"Given the level of interest we have seen, we anticipate wide global adoption of Open Data Certificates."
Good on paper - or rather online! - but let's wait until we see its requirements enacted before we all start congratulating our various governments on their commitment to transparency and openness.
The ODC principles are fine and form a good foundation for a transition essential to the progress of digital government around the world.
The timing sucks. In a week that's been dominated by the PRISM scandal all around the world, fine statements about the open nature of government data may result in little more than a cynical laugh.
But the basic content of the charter is robust. What now matters is how robust we are in making sure that its principles are being enacted - and that's a far bigger challenge than working out the tie or open-necked photo call question.