Making Open Data more evidence-based

Essay by Stefaan G. Verhulst and Danny Lämmerhirt: “…To realize its potential there is a need for more evidence on the full life cycle of open data – within and across settings and sectors….

In particular, three substantive areas were identified that could benefit from interdisciplinary and comparative research:

Demand and use: First, many expressed a need to become smarter about the demand and use-side of open data. Much of the focus, given the nascent nature of many initiatives around the world, has been on the supply-side of open data. Yet to be more responsive and sustainable more insight needs to be gained to the demand and/or user needs.

Conversations repeatedly emphasized that we should differentiate between open data demand and use. Open data demand and use can be analyzed from multiple directions: 1) top-down, starting from a data provider, to intermediaries, to the end users and/or audiences; or 2) bottom-up, studying the data demands articulated by individuals (for instance, through FOIA requests), and how these demands can be taken up by intermediaries and open data providers to change what is being provided as open data.

Research should scrutinize each stage (provision, intermediation, use and demand) on its own, but also examine the interactions between stages (for instance, how may open data demand inform data supply, and how does data supply influence intermediation and use?)….

Informing data supply and infrastructure: Second, we heard on numerous occasions, a call upon researchers and domain experts to help in identifying “key data” and inform the government data infrastructure needed to provide them. Principle 1 of the International Open Data Charter states that governments should provide key data “open by default”, yet the questions remains in how to identify “key” data (e.g., would that mean data relevant to society at large?).

Which governments (and other public institutions) should be expected to provide key data and which information do we need to better understand government’s role in providing key data? How can we evaluate progress around publishing these data coherently if countries organize the capture, collection, and publication of this data differently?…

Impact: In addition to those two focus areas – covering the supply and demand side –  there was also a call to become more sophisticated about impact. Too often impact gets confused with outputs, or even activities. Given the embryonic and iterative nature of many open data efforts, signals of impact are limited and often preliminary. In addition, different types of impact (such as enhancing transparency versus generating innovation and economic growth) require different indicators and methods. At the same time, to allow for regular evaluations of what works and why there is a need for common assessment methods that can generate comparative and directional insights….

Research Networking: Several researchers identified a need for better exchange and collaboration among the research community. This would allow to tackle the research questions and challenges listed above, as well as to identify gaps in existing knowledge, to develop common research methods and frameworks and to learn from each other. Key questions posed involved: how to nurture and facilitate networking among researchers and (topical) experts from different disciplines, focusing on different issues or using different methods? How are different sub-networks related or disconnected with each other (for instance how connected are the data4development; freedom of information or civic tech research communities)? In addition, an interesting discussion emerged around how researchers can also network more with those part of the respective universe of analysis – potentially generating some kind of participatory research design….(More)”