Open Data: From ‘Platform’ to ‘Program’

Engaging Cities: “A few months ago, Dutch designer Mark van der Net launched, a highly interesting example of what can be done with open data. At first, it looks like a mapping tool. The interface shows a – beautifully designed – map of The Netherlands, color coded according to whatever open data set the user selects, varying from geographical height to the location of empty office buildings. As such it is an example of a broader current in which artists, citizens, ngos and business actors have build online tools to visualize all kinds of data, varying from open government data to collaboratively produced data sets focused on issues like environmental pollution.
What makes OSCity interesting is that it allows users to intuitively map various datasets in combination with each other in so called ‘map stories’. For instance, a map of empty office space can be combined with maps of urban growth and decline, the average renting price per square meter of office space, as well as map that displays the prices of houses for sale. The intersection of those maps shows you where empty office spaces are offered at or below half the price of regular houses and apartments. The result is thus not just an aesthetically pleasing state of affairs, but an action map. Policy makers, developers and citizens can use the insights produced by the map to find empty offices that are worthwhile to turn into houses.
There are two important lessons we can learn from this project. First, it shows the importance of programs like OSCity to make open data platforms operationable for various actors. Over the last few years governments and other organizations have started to open up their datasets, often accompanied with high expectations of citizen empowerment and greater transparency of governments. However, case studies have showed that opening up data and building an open platform is only a first step. Dawes and Helbig have shown that various stakeholders have various needs in terms of standards and protocols, whereas both citizens and government officials need the relevant skills to be able to understand and operate upon the data. ‘Vast amounts of useful information are contained in government data systems’, they write, ‘but the systems themselves are seldom designed for use beyond the collecting agency’s own needs.’ In other words: what is needed to deliver on the expectations of open data, is not only a platform – a publicly available database – but also what I have called ‘programs’ – online tools with intuitive interfaces that make this data intelligible and actionable in concert with the needs of the public.
There is a second issue that OSCity raises. As Jo Bates has pointed out, the main question is: who exactly is empowered through programs like this? Will ‘programs’ that make data operationable work for citizens? Or will their procedures, standards and access be organized to benefit corporate interests? These do not have to be necessarily contradicting, but if the goal is to empower citizens, it is important to engage them as stakeholders in the design of these programs.”