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Navigating the Challenges of Open Data and Participatory Governance
Jon GlascoMar 6, 2023 12:30:19 PM7 min read

Navigating the Challenges of Open Data and Participatory Governance

Smart cities must collect plenty of data as a means to analyse urban problems and support participatory governance. Fortunately, the modern world generates plenty of data. More than 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is a staggering estimate of the volume of data created each day in the global economy, governments, universities and think tanks.

Navigating the Challenges of Open Data and Participatory GovernanceiStock: Sakorn Sukkasemsakorn, ID: 1403255035

Government entities at all levels are among the major originators and accumulators of data, and open government data platforms are often promoted as a sign of smart city progress. Smart cities rely on open data — combined with participatory governance policies — to increase government effectiveness and trust through public awareness and e-participation.

An inquisitive citizen might ask: “What is open government data?”

Simply put, it is government-related data “collected, produced or paid for by public bodies that can be freely used, modified, and shared”. For a municipal government, this may include datasets covering budgets, city services, demographics, geographics, traffic, public transport, public safety, the environment and the local economy. Joe Appleton, Editorial Director at bee smart city, says urban data platforms “are an important part of any smart city ecosystem, using data from government sources, private enterprises, NGOs and members of the public, to help provide data-driven solutions that benefit everyone.”

Smart cities make government data openly available to drive participatory governance by:

  • Providing citizens with information to take part in government decisions, plans and policies
  • Increasing accountability and transparency in government operations
  • Engaging with citizens on proposed community improvements
  • Facilitating civic collaboration by bringing together government, citizens, companies and universities to co-create public services

Two cities known for their open data programmes are New York and Barcelona. The Big Apple makes a wide range of municipal data available to the public, including data on transportation and traffic, crime, and city finances. The city provides open data for participatory budgeting—giving citizens an opportunity to contribute to budget decisions. Barcelona is recognised for its innovation in online platforms and apps that allow local citizens to participate in policy debates, problem solving consultations, and urban innovation projects. Decidim, Barcelona’s shared digital participation model used in hundreds of cities, was a factor in the city being selected as the first European Capital of Democracy.

Doubts about data and democratic empowerment

Dr. Kayla Schwoerer, an assistant professor of public administration at VU Amsterdam, writes: “Open government data is believed to enhance democratic outcomes by empowering citizens with the information necessary to participate in meaningful ways. Nonetheless, questions remain about whether open government is indeed empowering citizens to participate or if the data that governments publish is more reflective of the interests of non-citizen stakeholders.” Based on a study of public datasets in New York City, Schwoerer concluded that “non-citizen-relevant datasets not only outnumbered citizen-relevant datasets by a large margin but they were also viewed and downloaded at higher rates.”

At this point, a concerned citizen might ask: “Are open data programmes living up to their promise?”

Are open data programmes living up to their promise

A review of open data in the Government Information Quarterly said: “It is undeniable that, with all the current open government initiatives, a large amount of data has been released to the public. This, however, does not mean that the targeted aims of promoting transparency and facilitating accountability have been achieved.” The authors contend that while open data portals might comply with the law and follow established guidelines for releasing government data, this does not mean they increase transparency.

“Widespread data collection and use have transformed how people advocate for change and how decision makers understand and address community needs,” according to a white paper from the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, but entrenched barriers still exist. The paper’s authors say “too many people remain excluded from or invisible in data while others are harmed by their inclusion in it. Existing data is left unused or underused by policymakers while top-down data governance solutions do not allow space for people to hold those in power accountable.”

Another issue is the lack of open data usability. In the early stages of opening government data, cities recognised that a user’s ability “to discover relevant data was a prerequisite to unlocking the potential of open data.” Data usability challenges include the scarcity of standard protocols for exploring open government data, lack of real-time data, and the heterogeneity of open data formats.

Questions persist, says Schwoerer “regarding the extent to which open government data is indeed empowering citizens, especially historically marginalized groups, to participate.” Are cities inadvertently maintaining historic patterns of exclusion? “Public sector agencies can promote open data use by making more informed, inclusive, and citizen-centred decisions about what types of data they publish.”

Trust and the digital experience

For smart cities, the challenge of making government data open, reliable and usable is related to the issue of restoring trust in local government. The OECD says “increasing access to data while retaining trust is a challenge for many governments,” and urban data planners must build and maintain trust through the pillars of ethics, privacy and transparency. Deloitte surveyed more than 6,000 Americans to understand levels of trust in state and local governments. One of their findings was that “a citizen’s digital experiencewith a government agency was a strong predictor of their overall level of trust.”

Do citizens trust government decision-makers to invest in a digital experience that includes trustworthy open data portals?

A study of 280 open government data portals revealed that 56% of them were ineffective and therefore regarded as pretender open data portals (PODPs). “The existence of PODPs can have negative economic and social impacts, such as wasting public resources and projecting a negative image of a government’s open data.” Trustworthy? Not likely.

The authors contend that PODPs do not enable reuse of government data and do not include (a) the facility to automate publication of open data, or (b) the capability to deliver real-time information through frequent updates. A data management system is crucial to ensure that open data is maintained and updated at specified intervals. “Failure to update results in a loss of confidence.” And trust!

The availability of real-time data enables monitoring of events that require a rapid response, such as traffic incidents and congestion, flooding and other extreme weather events, public safety situations, and detection of harmful air pollution levels. A European directive on open data places emphasis on making real-time data resources available to the public. The directive requires public sector entities to provide real-time data in a machine-readable format, ensure the data is available through application programming interfaces (APIs), and verify the data is updated in a timely manner.

Signs of optimism

At the municipal level, a report from the National League of Cities revealed that 35% of surveyed cities “are using online tools to engage residents in decision-making processes, such as budgeting or planning” — a major increase from 2019, when only 13% of cities used these tools.

Europe’s Open Data Maturity report indicates that “France has the highest maturity level, a reflection of the efforts made by the entire French open data community and by organizations in a range of different sectors to democratise data use.” A study from the European Data Portal (EDP) says “European cities are embracing open data and are well underway in their open data journey.” Eight cities evaluated by EDP “recognise the importance of involving citizens for a successful open data initiative, with the purpose of making them more aware of the benefits and potential applications of open data.”

According to EDP, cities should embed open data initiatives in a smart city strategy, and:

  • Improve the quality and usability of open data
  • Boost open data awareness through hackathons and other events aimed at the local user community
  • Increase open data skills and resources through cooperation with other cities
  • Demonstrate the practical use of open data through visualisations in an accessible dashboard

To promote democratic participation, Schwoerer believes “governments must publish open data that is inclusive of the interests of diverse groups of stakeholders.” She says governments can optimise their investment in open data initiatives “through efforts to understand how citizens use open data, including their interests, skillsets, requirements, and information preferences.”

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Jon Glasco

Jon Glasco is a freelance consultant and writer focused on innovation in smart cities and smart urban mobility. He has experience in executive and consulting roles in the telecommunications, mobile operator, public transport, government and professional service sectors. Jon holds an MBA and Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering.