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Global standard needed for publishing government data-campaigner

by Luke Balleny | http://www.twitter.com/LBalleny | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 29 October 2013 12:25 GMT

The seat of a member of the European Parliament is seen in the plenary room of the European Parliament during a debate on the situation in Syria, in Strasbourg, September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

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Many governments are now publishing more reports and statistics than ever before, but unless common standards are agreed, the data may be too difficult for people to analyze and compare, transparency compaigners say

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The adoption of a global standard for the release of official government reports and statistics would help academics, journalists and advocacy groups turn streams of data into usable information and enable them to hold governments to account, Jamie Drummond, co-founder of campaign group ONE, said.

Drummond singled out the International Aid Transparency Movement (IATI) as a global standard that has gained traction as a format for releasing government development aid data.

“If this IATI standard is decent enough, what is actually stopping it from being socialised through all the other (movements), budget transparency, extractive transparency and so on?” he asked.

The idea won warm support at a roundtable discussion entitled ‘Zombie Data: Has open data failed to live up to its hype?’ hosted by Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday.

The event was part of Transparency Week, a week of events that address different aspects of government and corporate transparency, timed to coincide with the meeting in London of 60 governments which have committed to openness and transparency by joining the Open Government Partnership (OGP).

A global standard would help solve one of the major problems behind the drive to have official data released online for anyone to search and analyze, namely the time consuming process of sorting through data sets which are often released in many different formats, some of them very difficult to manipulate. This has limited the impact that publicly releasing data has had in creating a more informed citizenry that is better able to hold its leaders to account.

The promise of the open government data movement was that it would improve the operational efficiency of government by shedding some light on how suppliers are chosen, budgets allocated and contracts drawn up. Two years after the OGP was launched, the results so far have been mixed, raising questions over whether the movement promised too much, and it has led to what Daniel Kaufmann, head of Revenue Watch Institute, calls “zombie data” – huge waves of numbers without meaning or relevance.

The event’s moderator, Tim Large, editor in chief of Thomson Reuters Foundation, started the event by laying out three charges against the open data movement. First, that the movement is too supply-side driven, governments publish the data but no one uses it. Second, that open data is not living up to its name because of an excessive emphasis on releasing data online when an estimated 65 percent of the world is not online. Third, that open data is complicated and messy and can intimidate those not used to manipulating large data sets.

Clare Short, chair of the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI) and a former UK development minister, said that open data was “a work in progress” and that it was too early to judge the movement as a whole.

“Open data is ten years old as an idea and five years operational,” she said.                              

Ellen Miller, head of U.S.-based campaign group Sunlight Foundation, said that while the OGP had made great strides in pushing governments to publish data,  she was worried that the commitments made by governments at the OGP would end when the government that made the commitment left office.

The OGP Annual Summit will meet in London for two days on Oct. 31, bringing together more than 1,000 delegates from civil society organisations, governments and business.

Blog posts and tweets recorded during the Zombie Data discussion can be found here.

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