Bottom up and middle out, but not yet from top down
- Part I – Abstract – Introduction – State of the debate
- Part II – State of actions – Challenges and bottlenecks – Conclusions
State of actions: Building capacity
Data itself is not interesting for most of the people, including the politicians and civil servants. It is the real applications using government data that are noticed. Without data, however, it would be difficult to create solutions that prove the benefits.
The first Apps for Democracy Finland competition was arranged in 2009 with the goal of finding show cases and new uses for information provided by public administration. The competition followed the tradition of similar contests in many other countries. In Finland it seemed to have a positive impact in the discussion about re-using public sector information.
The contest as a concrete event brought different stakeholders together. The organisations and individuals (public institutions, companies, researchers and citizens) that were involved in the 2009 competition are still very much driving the movement of PSI reuse in Finland.
- (Co-organizer of the contest) the public service portal Suomi.fi is currently hosting and developing the Finnish data.gov style national data catalogue data.suomi.fi
- (Sponsor of the contest) the Libraries.fi portal have just released the catalogue meta data of all 680 000 items that can be found in the Helsinki region (Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen) City Libraries.
- (Represented in the Jury) The Ministry of Transport and Communications has published a guidebook about open data for the public sector organizations.
- (Co-organizer of the contest) Forum Virium Helsinki (a regional development organisation) is running the ambitious Helsinki Region Infoshare project.
- (Winner of the apps contest idea category) Peter Tattersall is developing the TaxTree idea  further and aiming to start a company.
These are just few indirect results of a rather small competition with 23 participants and a total of 13.000€ prize money. Many other groups and individuals who were involved are also continuing to contribute to the emergence and development of the Finnish open data ecosystem.
During the past year numerous data catalogues around the world have been launched. Most well known ones are the national level catalogues in UK and USA. Also many regional, citywide, thematic and independently run catalogues are up and running already and many more initiatives are under development.
A question raised by all this catalogue development work is how the interoperability of the different data catalogues could be achieved so that the national, regional and independent catalogues could produce together a universal, but distributed open government data catalogue. In Europe the issues of data catalogue interoperability was discussed in the ePSIplus Network “towards a pan-European PSI registry” meeting and more in the recent topic report by Rob Davies.
In Finland there are currently four groups that are developing data catalogues for different purposes:
- The national data catalogue data.suomi.fi
- Helsinki Region Infoshare project is preparing to deploy a regional data catalogue and working to establish a clearing house concept to support a partnership between 14 municipalities in the capital region to harmonize and publish their information resources.
- The Finnish Network Democracy Association will soon launch a developer oriented independent catalogue which would include also metadata of known, but not yet open public sector data sources and also useful data outside of the public sector.
- The Semantic Computing Research Group (SECO) of Aalto University develops tools (including catalogue) to publish and re-use public sector data following the Linked Data concept.
Finland is in a good position to develop solutions for interoperability on the technical and practical level since the above mentioned four projects are being developed at the same time. All of these projects are independent, but the development goes on iteratively and in loosely coupled collaboration.
Challenges and bottlenecks
The Finnish FOI legislation requires that public documents are open, but does not say anything about the technical and legal re-usability of the data. The Act on Criteria for Charges Payable to the State (150/1992) stipulates that in many cases, there is a charge for the use of public sector data.
Finland has a long history of freedom of information (FOI) legislation, which dates back to the world’s first FOI legislation adopted by the Swedish parliament in 1766, when Finland was part of Sweden.
Finland’s FOI regulation has on a number of occasions been referred to as an example of good practice. However, Treating PSI re-use as an extension of freedom of information issue has not led to significant progress in actual opening up of the public sector data resources.
In practice, most organisations make the information in their databases available on their websites or as publications and documents, but they do not publish the data itself. The distribution of data is often neglected, while organisations focus on fulfilling their obligations to publish documents.
In many cases, the decision of publishing a dataset openly falls in between the traditional roles and responsibilities of officials within public sector organisations. Those who technically understand opening data sources (the IT department) are typically not authorised to make decisions about the content, those who are usually responsible for publishing information (the communications department) may not understand at the first hand how publishing data in legally and technically re-usable form differs from publishing documents on the organization’s web portal.
The author of the topic report from Norway, Olav Anders Øvrebø said that the Scandinavian countries are potential open data champions. His comment is based on the favourable conditions including good quality public registries, long history in transparent governance and the FOI legislation. I must agree with this positive view about the potential, but at the same time admit that the potential is still far from being fulfilled in Finland.
During 2009 and 2010 we have been witnessing in Finland as in many other countries newly raised awareness of the possibilities offered by public sector data. I call this open data movement as the second wave in the discussion on the access to and re-usability of public sector information.
Better public visibility of the topic, including the international examples of data catalogues, applications and innovation contests has boosted the debate and activity in Finland. The open data ecosystem is getting more powerful and more people from politicians to public administrators, entrepreneurs and active citizens are joining forces.
In order to raise public and political interest in opening the data resources it is crucial to see the potential of PSI from wider societal and democratic perspective rather than merely from the economic “open information market” -perspective.
On the other hand, the needed decisions, which will change the funding models of some public organizations and division of labour between public and private actors will need a solid economic case.
It may be that the current wave of public enthusiasm will pass before the real benefits of open public data appear. Hopefully the debate which has started and actions are strong enough to cause permanent structural changes so that the social, democratic and economic benefits will be seen in the future.
 Suomi.fi. (2009). Finnish national data catalogue. Finnish service portal Suomi.fi. http://www.data.fi.
 Libraries.fi. (2010). Catalogue meta data Helsinki region city libraries. http://data.kirjastot.fi/
 Poikola, A., Kola, P., & Hintikka, K. A. (2010). Julkinen data. Publication of the Ministry of Transport and Communications. http://www.julkinendata.fi/
 Forum Virium Helsinki (2010). Helsinki Region Infoshare. http://www.forumvirium.fi/en/project-areas/smart-city/helsinki-region-infoshare.
 Tattersall, P. (2009). The Tax Tree (presentation). Slideshare. http://www.slideshare.net/ptatters/tax-tree
 Green, B. (2009). Thematic Meeting Report PSI Asset Registers: towards a pan-European PSI registry http://www.epsiplatform.eu/psi_library/reports/epsiplus_thematic_psi_re_use_meeting_reports_2006_to_2009/information_management_standards_meeting_3_report
 Davies, R (2010). PSI Portals: Overview of Progress (Part 1) http://www.epsiplatform.eu/topic_reports/topic_report_no_8_psi_portals_overview_of_progress_part_1
 Mustonen, J. (2006). The World’s First Freedom of Information Act. Anders Chydenius Foundation (p. 103). Anders Chydenius Foundation. http://www.access-info.org/documents/Access_Docs/Thinking/Get_Connected/worlds_first_foia.pdf