knowledge work, learning, social media
Value Creation with Open
A community perspective
Graz, August 31st 2010
good evening everybody. Thank you for inviting me. There is a lot to say about Open Data,
and the value of open data.
To me Open Data is currently the primary potential catalyst for improving our societies and
economies. But it is also very easy to loose ourselves in abstract notions when discussing
Open Data. So let’s make it real and tangible ﬁrst.
Meet Tine Müller
I’d like you to meet Tine Müller. She’s Danish and in her ﬁfties I think. She’s part of a group
of friends where many have bladder problems. They are afraid to go into the city for
shopping because they do not know if there will be a toilet when they need one. So they
rather stayed home.
Tine built this map of all public toilets in Denmark, based on Open Data. Her friends get to
go out more. Because she was able, without any technological knowledge up front, to use
Open Data in a way that was valuable to her.
Meet Dirk Houtgraaf
Meet Dirk Houtgraaf. He’s a director at the Dutch national institute for cultural heritage. He
sits on a ton of data, about the cultural history of the Netherlands. Like all government
institutions he needs to be looking for ways to save money.
He decided to work together with amateur historical societies and the wiki media foundation
to improve his own data, as well as get his data used more widely.
Open data means a lot to his own efficiency and effectivity. Because he is using Open Data to
reach his own policy goals. He says he is getting better at his job, and needs to accept it will
make his workload smaller.
The pictures are an example of reuse of the Dutch list of monuments and historical sites. The
Wikimedia foundation took the open data list of monuments, checked all addresses, and
made pictures of all buildings. Then someone else built this Augmented Reality app for smart
phones so you can see the monument information on your phone as you walk around a city.
Meet Rudi Kragh
Meet Rudi. He’s a Danish entrepreneur. He built a website where in less than 15 minutes,
based on your address and a handful of other questions you will get a complete plan how to
save energy for your house, including a ﬁnancial plan with the subsidies available to you, as
well as a list of skilled builders from your town who could do the work.
This is possible because information on the construction of every house, plans for
neighbourhood heating, weather in your region, and subsidies etc are available publicly.
His clients are the municipalities, who are seeking energy efficiency, or want to create more
local jobs, or see their subsidy programs more succesful. With Open Data Rudi pulls it all
together, to create value for home owners, communities and himself alike.
Meet Richard Jansen
Meet Richard Jansen, he’s an officer with the ﬁre brigade of Amsterdam. And he has three
urgent problems he wants to solve.
He wants to know where the road construction is in his city and get to the location of a ﬁre
He wants to know what hazardous materials are in a building he lets his people enter;
He wants to know what is beneath the water surface at a spot he lets his people dive;
All this information and data is public. But it is not available to him how he needs and when
he needs it. He tried a lot of things, but Open Data is the really the only way, as well as the
easiest and quickest way. The ﬁle with construction activities he know has. The others he is
still waiting for. For him Open Data means saving lives.
So what is this Open Data, that can do all that?
It is useful to deﬁne it ﬁrst. Especially as the term Open is used for many different things in
different contexts, even when it is actually very much closed and costs a lot of money.
We’re not just talking about Open, as in Open Source, which is about being able to see and
re-use source code.
We’re not just talking about Open, as in Open Government, which is about transparency and
We’re not just talking about Open, as in Open Standards, which is about interoperability
We’re not just talking about Open, as in Open Licensing, which is about access and terms of
We’re talking about Open Government Data, which incorporates these different kinds of
Open Gov Data Principles
These are the primary aspects of Open Government Data.
It means every bit of public data is available to everyone, regardless of intended use, without
restrictions, in a way that it can be processed by machines.
The basic reasoning is: we already paid for it through taxes, so it is our public data, and let’s
put it to good use.
Public trumps all
I said PUBLIC data, as anything that is about individual persons or of explicit national interest
may be excluded.
BUT, public data that is public by law does not know these privacy or national interest
For instance that I am the one owning my house, and how much I paid for it, is publicly
available, because the housing register is public information in the Netherlands.
Open Data is by deﬁnition Public Data, but not all public data is already open data. Publicness
is just one of the criteria.
Where are we?
So where are we now when it comes to Open Data in the EU?
Let’s have a look at what I see in the general community around open data.
First of all there is a sense of urgency in the community. Lots of people have been waiting for
gov to open up their data for a long time, and now that the ﬁrst promising steps have been
taken, impatience for more is growing. And it’s the law after all.
Also it is increasingly hard to understand how there could be differences in what is open and
not, now the ﬂoodgates have been opened. So momentum is really building.
Above all, there is a whole range of questions and problems where open data could help
citizens out in ﬁnding answers and a way forward.
If you look at opinions in the community of where or how to start with opening up data you
basically can see two camps. One camp argues for speed. Just get things going right now.
The other camp, and government is mostly here, argues for some caution, out of desire to do
The colour of ‘right’?
The problem with that last thing is that the deﬁnition of ‘doing it right’ really depends on the
group you talk to.
Academics mean that everything has proper metadata and ﬁts the semantic web standards
and comes in neat RDF triples.
Coders mean that everything is available as raw data, through API’s in the formats they
happen to be using a lot currently
Entrepreneurs mean it has a reliable license and there’s a guarantee of availability and
continuity and a way to evaluate the quality of data.
Government institutions mean they have political cover and won’t run into trouble doing it
And individual citizens mean it’s free and properly described so they can ﬁgure out what to
do with it, and have a way to see what’s not there.
Because doing it right means all of these things, it’s better to just start with speed, and ﬁgure
out how to do it right in all the different ways as you go along. There’s no way to reliably plan
this anyway, as complexity theory tells us. We have to learn as we go along.
You probably notice from your own context that people are generally not content with the
current situation in open data. The interesting bit to me is that the perceived gap between
what people want to have and what they see happening is a constant.
In general in the Netherlands we look at the UK with envy as they have a great data catalogue.
Within the UK everybody is still eager for much more, as they say it’s still only data that the
UK chooses to release. I’ve heard the Netherlands praised as making great headway when it
comes to legislation. But within the Netherlands we see that those laws and guidelines are
hardly followed, and we perceive a big difference between the law and what gov is doing.
Some, like the Dutch association of municipalities are to my eyes even actively resisting
opening up, and ﬁghting it each step of the way.
So there seems to be a consistent gap, regardless of the progress made. Do not be
discouraged. We are making progress, but at the same time all those steps are also
increasing our appetite.
It’s absolutely of critical importance to keep all stakeholder groups in mind, including
don’t design openess with just one or a few in mind. It will help keep it simpler.
Infrastructure isn’t build with user groups in mind.
Infrastructure is dumb, its intelligence is at the boundaries.
Treat open data as infrastructure, as a general resource, as dumb.
Just put it out there.
• Private citizens
• Civil Servants
• Gov Institutions
Taking into account all stakeholders is key. Or you will completely largely miss all the value
open data generates.
If you think only in terms of companies and economic value, you will never notice that Tine
Möllers friends are now able to leave their homes and can ﬁnd a toilet, participating in society
If you think only in terms of transparency you will never notice the number of lives Richard
saves due to Open Data in his work as ﬁreman. Or the way Dirk makes his government
institution be more effective as well as efficient.
If you only think in terms of cool apps for your smart phone you will not notice the higher
quality of decisions Danish home-owners can take regarding their energy use. Saving money
as well as the planet.
The same goes for areas of application.
Don’t as a government try to second guess what are useful applications and select data to
open based on that.
There is no way to predict this. Look at the apps available for smartphones. No one would
have guessed a few years back.
Just put it out there. As a platform for others to build on, as infrastructure.
You will like some apps, you will hate some others. So will I.
But it’s not up to you or me.
Fields of application
• Participation / empowerment
• Transparency, democratic control
• Better (gov) products and services
• New (gov) products and services
• Impact measurement
• Gov Efﬁciency and Effectivity
• New knowledge / real innovation
Here’s just a small list of areas where open data is already creating value.
Also realize that government open data has impact in the corporate world.
Open government data may actually be a way of stimulating corporations to do the same with
The Dutch initiative ‘See if it checks out’ gives insight in the origin and ingredients of food
products. It turns out that parties like Unilever, large farmer associations, and large super
market chains are actually willing to open up their data for this.
Because transparency and corporate social responsibility is a competitive edge to them. This
may in turn contribute to policy goals of governments when it comes to sustainability.
Innovation Starts in Unlikely Places
It is easy to simply apply Open Data merely to what we already know. But I am sure most
value will be in doing new things. We need a very good antenna for new things happening, to
demonstrate the value of Open Data.
Innovation theory tells us that innovation, disruptive innovation will not likely be coming from
incumbent structures or organisations.
Nobody thought Google or Apple were worth anything when they were still working out of
their garage. It’s easy to see NOW that they create value. But not back then.
So looking in the usual places will only show you how existing things may be done differently
with some open data, and the relative value generated by that. We need to be aware of the
unusual places and vigorously collect examples and stories.
Can you be Dr Snow?
The same goes for new knowledge gained. If we try to guess what data to open up, we are
overlooking the high likelihood that new knowledge will be mostly found in combining the
This is where semantic web or linked data will make its greatest contribution I think. By
allowing us all to become Dr. Snow.
He was a doctor in London during a 19th century Cholera epidemic. He took the addresses of
those who died. And he took the locations of water sources. And mapped them together,
seeing that most deaths were around one single water well. Which turned out to be polluted
with sewage. It is how we know that it is bad water that carries these diseases. And why
London started building huge sewage systems after Dr Snow made this one little map.
What Gov must, what it may
So why aren’t we there yet? If the value is so obvious.
We have the European PSI Directive which is translated into law in all Member States. That law
basically says that everything needs to be opened up, and that if gov is not doing that pro-
actively citizens can ask for it anyway. It is the law.
A consistent source of irritation however is the low general awareness within government
institutions about the current state of the law concerning open PSI and data.
This leads to confusion and general unpredictability for citizens.
Because it seems every institution, and each civil servant is making up their own mind when
confronted with a request for information.
So we see data sources in arbitrary formats
We see arbitrary costs being charged
We see data being withheld on privacy grounds, when personal information is not involved
We see downloading of already public information being actively blocked
We see the demand to state your interest
Or we’re told that we’re not skilled enough to deal with the information (by statistical offices
Or to register before you can get at the information.
Or cease and desist letters from Belgian state railway for even linking to their website!
In general, where there is no clear political incentive (like there is in the UK), we ﬁnd there is
no clear picture of whether you can actually get at data, or will be allowed to get it.
Regardless of the law.
Basic Things Unknown
Even simple things are completely unknown sometimes.
My basic test for this is sending documents in Open Document Format.
Accepting Open Standards have been mandatory since 2008 in the Netherlands
I have yet to ﬁnd one single Dutch government employee who is actually able to open ODF
ﬁles. And found only a handful that knew they should be able to open them.
Distrust of Level of Knowledge
This leads to general distrust of the level of knowledge within government to actually do
opening data up ‘right’.
In the picture it actually says ‘Knowledge’ if you know how to read street tags. Which I don’t.
The technology people seem to be used to complicated ICT projects, and have grown unable
to deal with making things simple.
Like creating new standards where there are already enough of them.
Like wanting to build their own webservices and not releasing the data itself.
Like wanting to build huge portals where a simple list of sources is more than enough
Non-techies seem to know too little about technology to be able to foresee the consequences
of their choices. Like deciding doing everything in PDF, as that is an open standard after all.
Or they have no notion what reuse actually is.
All of these issues have relatively simple answers. If government would talk to somebody else
outside or inside government ﬁrst. You simply need to ask the right people. Like you gathered
in Graz today.
So we aren’t there yet. Not by a long shot.
The gates have opened, and it will be increasingly difficult for anyone to close them again.
Chris Taggart, when we met in Madrid said it this way.
Open Data is such a no-brainer that the burden of evidence should be on those who think it’s
a bad idea to do.
But we’re not at that point yet. More active work is needed.
We need to act. As individual citizens, to make sure government lives up to our expectations.
And we need to start in our own spheres of inﬂuence.
EC: “Demand your data”
By demanding our data. You have the backing of the European Commision. In the picture
Javier Hernandez Ros of the Commission, at a conference in Copenhagen said that if your
government isn’t doing enough, go out and demand your data. It is your right. It is the law.
Involve Civil Servants
But don’t see it as US against THEM. Civil servants are citizens too, and I have yet to meet one
that does not have a passion for public service, even if that is well hidden. So involve civil
servants. Find the ones that care about open government data, and connect them together.
The screenshot is of a Dutch community of over 4000 civil servants, called Civil Servant2.0,
of which I am one of the board members. The community is all about using open data, social
media, new work methods to improve government.
Share your stories. Make what you know and see visible. Share examples. It will help others
see the potential, and see the value. It will help others to become active. Including your
Make it visible that your government is being out-competed by their fellow governments in
The German government in their recent e-gov strategy wrote they see the UK and US action
on open data as a competitive threat to the German economy.
Co-create the Path
But most of all: All the mentioned issues actually become easier to deal with if you let
yourself into dialogue with the wider community and government.
We are all new at this basically. We are all learning. So let’s co-create the path.
It will help with all issues mentioned.
Spend time stimulating the wider open data community in your respective communities. With
Especially if your government has not taken many steps to open up PSI yet. I’m happy to tell
you how to go about that, but it will take some more time than the 20 mins given me.
Make Demands of Ourselves
And also make demands of people in the community.
We as citizens need to be useful partners in dialogue for government as well. We need to
learn to talk to government as well.
This picture is from a conference last year in Copenhagen.......
Coming to conclusion.
In the past 2 years I have become much more of a radical when it comes to Open Data.
Less patient, less understanding of certain government people unwilling to get moving, less
forgiving of obstruction.
But I have also become much more optimistic. Good things are happening. The likes of Tine,
Richard, Dirk and Rudi I introduced at the start proof that. And every government body I ever
dealt with contains passionate people who do see the value in open data, and it’s a pleasure
to work with them.
So I confess I’m a radical, but a very optimistic one.
Thank you for your time and attention.
knowledge work, learning, social media
All photos: Ton Zijlstra, by nc sa
Except where mentioned on the photo.