Antti Poikola: Public administration – public data

Published April 16th 2010 at Sitra/Articles

One of the best known web brands in Finland, the Journey Planner has tens of thousands of users every day. This absolutely marvellous public service seems today so self-evident that many don’t even remember how it was in 2000 when the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Council YTV published timetables for bus stops on the web only as regular printable lists.

Three students at the Helsinki University of Technology, Roope Luhtala, Mika Vuorio and Atte Saarela, were irritated that the timetable lists for separate routes didn’t cater to the usual need to find the quickest connection from point A to B using more than one scheduled public transport.

Luhtala, Vuorio and Saarela programmed a solution which automatically read the timetables on the YTV website into a database where they could then be searched and combined into journeys. The programmers presented the Journey Planner prototype to YTV and were greeted with enthusiasm. They also learnt that there is no point in gleaning the bus stop timetables from the web, as the same data could be found in YTV’s own databases.

From prototype to production

The idea of the Journey Planner was turned into a commercial enterprise. The inventive trio’s business won the tender competition for the system; today, the system provider is Logica. The Journey Planner is a website offering public transport schedules for the general public and, moreover, the same data and a lot more is available in machine-readable format via an open interface. The interface is used by various actors in, for example, mobile solutions. Director Mika Vuorio from Logica says that openness and easy integration have always been important qualities of the Journey Planner.

Every administrative organisation generates and uses enormous volumes of information that is public, just as the YTV timetables were in 2000. Nevertheless, the open interface of the Journey Planner is still a relatively rare exception when talking about the public data resources.

When distributed in digital format, information does not decrease in quantity or quality – quite the opposite. There is no lack of information these days. This is a well acknowledged fact, and there are not many who oppose more open distribution of publicly generated information. In practice, most organisations process the information in their databases into websites, publications and documents, but they don’t publish the data itself. Why is that?

Public data resources accessible for everybody

In this context, data means digital raw material that can be automatically prepared, searched and combined. Often distribution of data in machine-readable format seems to be forgotten, while organisations focus on fulfilling their obligations and publishing any information at all.

We are lucky that the inventive trio created the prototype of the Journey Planner although they didn’t have easy access to machine-readable timetable data. By opening public data resources to everybody, however, we can promote similar creativity outside the organisations and, above all, enable the use of information, initially gathered for a specific purpose, in inventive and unexpected combinations with other information sources.

The benefits from distributing public data resources can roughly be divided into three categories:

  • Transparency and democracy
  • Innovation and business
  • Internal efficiency within the administration

It is absurd that you still have to give reasons for the open distribution of public data, when it should be the other way round – refraining from distribution should be justified.

New guidance for opening information resources

One challenge for opening the information resources may be that data in itself is not particularly interesting; rather, it is seen as technical tinkering. It’s the solutions that make use of data that are noticed. Without data, however, it would be difficult to create flashy solutions that prove the use of the data. To avoid this challenge, I started this article by using the Journey Planner as an example of a data-reliant service that was originally created outside the organisation generating the data.

Distributing information resources for free and using them on a broad scale have been discussed for a long time, but now the issue is attracting more attention than ever before. After visible international launches, such as the launch in Britain of the website data.gov.uk, which includes more than 3,000 public machine-readable data sources, the debate over public data resources has gained impetus also in Finland.

I have been fortunate to follow firsthand the debate in Finland and the real actions taken to open the public information resources. In 2009, I participated in the arrangements of the Apps for Democracy Finland contest (the 2010 contest, Apps for Finland, is launched on the information society theme day on 14 April). Together with Kari A. Hintikka and Petri Kola, I am also one of the writers of the guide Julkinen data – johdatus tietovarantojen avaamiseen (Public data – an introduction to opening the information resources) commissioned by the Ministry of Transport and Communication.

Antti Poikola

Antti Poikola, M.Sc., is Managing Director for the company HILA Open Oy, a provider of open interactive platforms (www.fillarikanava.fi). Previously, Poikola was a researcher at the Helsinki University Technology, where he studied, among other subjects, the use of social media in the interaction between public management and citizens (the SOMUS project).

One response to “Antti Poikola: Public administration – public data

  1. Pingback: Open Data for Local transportation | Stop

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