Management > Open Data

The era of open data in government

Published 19 September 2017

James Eiloart, senior vice president, EMEA of Tableau discusses the role of open data in the public sector and how government organisations can get the most out of using it


Data and the availability of data is at the top of nearly every CEO’s agenda, certainly hurried along by the plethora of data available in today’s digital world and the urgent need to get business value from that data.

But what is data’s role in the public sector? Is the government sitting up and paying attention when it comes to data and getting value from it? In a word, the answer is yes.  And in all honesty, with GDPR regulation looming on the horizon in May 2018, they can’t afford not to.

Data is the oil of the 21st century.  It is now one of the most critical assets for business and government organisations. How could it not be, with our lives becoming more driven by digital devices on a daily basis. Be it assessing business performance, averaging test scores in schools, or forecasting the weather, data-based information is part of our everyday lives.

As data plays a part in nearly every facet of our lives, smart cities are starting to be built - all driven by data. In a ‘smart city’, previously siloed government departments become intrinsically connected, with data shared over digital platforms for better cross-departmental coordination and planning. Citizens of smart cities are also more connected thanks to increased access to data and the ability to find answers to questions on their own, and quickly.  For example, in the city of Seoul in South Korea, access to data like housing vacancies, student enrollment and economic need, means younger students struggling to find housing are matched with older residents with spare rooms.

Using data in this way is called ‘open data.’ Open data policies allow citizens to analyse publicly available data to find information about things that concern them such as education, healthcare, housing, transport and utilities to help them make more informed decisions.

Open data in action

Governments need to communicate, educate and inform the public, at the same time as being under intense pressure to reduce costs, shorten decision making and speed up policy implementation processes. Some governments are doing this by making previously untapped data available to citizens.

One example of where the UK government has started get value from open data is the work done by the NHS Improvement using visual analytics software, Tableau.  

The NHS Improvement’s Analytics Hub uses visual analytics with the aim of refining NHS services. As we all know, the NHS has seen increasing levels of demand amid limited resource.  NHS Improvement is helping staff use data effectively to resolve problems and identify areas of improvement.  Take for example the creation of their Patient Experience Headlines Tool, an interactive, data-driven dashboard.

This dashboard publishes patient experience levels, so both NHS staff and trusts can look at patient care response in real-time across the country and act on the results.  Gathering data from 30 different data sources, including NHS staff recommendations and Care Quality Commission ratings, gives trusts a clear understanding of how they are performing when it comes to patient experience. As the information is publically available to trusts, it also means that they can benchmark themselves again their peers.

By measuring patient satisfaction from the patients themselves and seeing how local peers are performing helps trusts and hospitals make adjustments to the way they work and set more attainable goals – all with greater efficiency.  With a variety of visual dashboards, employees at NHS Improvement can identify issues quickly by seeing patterns and spotting outliers in very large data sets. This means they work with trusts to resolve problems faster, ultimately providing a positive impact for patients.

The rise of open data

Whilst the concept of open data is not new, and examples like NHS Improvement show how it can be put to good use, many governmental organisations still struggle with best practices for understanding, utilising and sharing access to data with the public. Traditionally, public sector organisations - like other organisations - access data via static reports and spreadsheets as their primary analytics solution. If open data continues to be made available in this format, then it won’t lend itself well to public consumption or understanding, let alone offer meaningful or actionable insights.

So here comes the call to action:

As government organisations across the globe work towards an open, data-driven era and reform long-standing public sector practices, they need to stop and think about how best to do that. Many governmental institutions are still in their infancy when it comes to capitalising on the potential of open data, but there are three key considerations they can take to design a program which turns raw data into powerful insights for both their staff and the general public.

1)  Focus on the most relevant data sets

One of the risks of publishing open data sources is the value that hides within large and unorganised datasets.  Sharing the most relevant data sets with the public in a visual and interactive way is critical to allowing more citizen participation, because it allows people to analyse it themselves and gather insights, leading to more innovative ideas and solutions.

Choosing the most relevant data sets may mean keeping it simple by picking data that shows the most meaningful metrics pertinent to current issues or specific projects. For instance, using public data to discern which bus routes are most utilised?  Once we have that analysis, we can then adjust bus schedules to accommodate commuter behavior, meaning data has a genuine impact on citizens.

Another way to discover and showcase relevant insights is to mash-up data from multiple data sets. Bringing together data sets on poverty and transportation, for example, will not only help understand complex issues with more depth and insight, it also opens up the possibility of uncovering unknown issues to then finding solutions.

2)  Enable visual analytics and interaction with data

Static data in traditional charts and graphs typically hinder people from analysing data and forming an opinion. Today’s technology has advanced so that data analytics is fast, user-friendly and for everyone.  In short, the static graph is outdated.

In the form of interactive dashboards, data shows rather than tells by bringing key trends, outliers and new opportunities to life quickly. Data comes alive when citizens can visually understand and interact with it.

The use of visual analytics calls for empowering citizens with self-service solutions that allow them to analyse the data they want to see, ask following up questions, and then decide how best to show that data so their insights are effectively communicated.

More importantly, dashboards allow instant engagement for the non-skilled or data-fearing citizen who may be new to data. They make data instantly engaging and relevant, and help the everyday user find their own answers in real-time.

3)  Build public trust in open data

As open data can be freely accessed, re-used and re-distributed by anyone, this development can also give rise to challenges and threats that must be addressed. Loss of control of data the, blurred accountability, privacy and security, danger of content misuse – just some concerns to name a few.

Let it be clear, not all data should be made public. Personal data of private citizens, such as healthcare records, personal income tax information, is not suitable for public sharing.

Additionally, safe and secure data governance needs to be in place. Governments need to curate data, decide what should be public and find the right balance between transparency and safety. Keeping citizens informed of security controls, providing regular updates and managing data risks are key to maintaining public trust – something which will be law when GDPR hits in May next year.

Put data into the hands of the people

It is inevitable that data will play a significant role in government and policy making. Especially in the data-led smart cities of the future where e-governments will increasingly engage with digitally connected citizens.

However, further thought needs to be given as we plan towards an open data era - where there is vibrant data sharing and refreshing transparency in government. Besides empowering everyday citizens with data, governments need to ensure that data access is engaging and meaningful, whilst also safe, secure and risk averse.

The goal of an open-data era should also be to build healthy ecosystems consisting of data advocates, producers and users. Governments should be using platforms that allow, not just the consumption of data, but for citizens to contribute and create connections via the sharing of data-backed ideas and feedback.

James Eiloart is senior vice-president EMEA of Tableau

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