Overcoming 5 Barriers to Open Government Data

Why is there still so much controversy around opening government data? The open data movement was created to increase government transparency, and foster civic participation and economic growth. Proponents suggest sharing government data will be key to solving perplexing human challenges such as poverty or climate change.

The movement is more than a decade old, yet it’s still facing implementation barriers. Chris Martin of The Open University covered some of those hurdles in his recent academic article, Barriers to the Open Government Data Agenda: Taking a Multi-Level Perspective. In it, he shares five key barriers to the open data movement and ways to overcome them.

5 Barriers to Open Government Data

Martin points out that there is very little evidence to support the claim that open data is as transformational as most in the movement believe it could be. There is some academic research both supporting and discounting open government data. Governments and civic groups are attempting to quantify the impact of open data, but there isn’t a substantive amount of empirical research to back up claims of a positive impact.

Barrier #1: the data

We know from our own work with government and civic groups that the first barrier to open government data is actually the data itself. Data managers must first address the following issues before the data is made more accessible to the public:

  • What is the purpose of open data if no one can understand it? Data complexity must be addressed through the use of data visualization tools. Without a tool that can make the data accessible, users will become frustrated by complicated interfaces or multi-step processes.
  • Data cleaning should always be part of the open government process, which many times can be completed through a portal such as OpenDataSoft.
  • Weak data includes datasets that include HTML links or datasets that you can’t open to review what exists inside.
  • Bad user interfaces where the end users struggle to even search the data. Or the interoperability – or lack of – on the technology platforms being used, can create hurdles to access.

Barrier #2: the demand

Chris Martin pointed out that the barriers to open data generally fall on both the supply and demand side of the process. The second open data hurdle falls on the demand side, with the movement experiencing a low level of interest across the public and private sector. Martin’s research points out that the public generally does not realize the value of open data. Also, incidences of open government data are relatively few and far between. Adopting a strategy to increase education around the concept and value of open data could potentially increase interest in the movement. But for now, Martin says, “the majority of businesses, citizens, and community organizations find open government data of very little value.”

Barrier #3: transparency

The benefits of open government data are the same things that make the idea controversial. Obviously, the idea of creating transparency around how the government spends taxpayer money could be viewed as either positive or negative depending on which side of the political aisle you sit. That’s clearly the third hurdle facing the open government data and it is a considerable one. In some instances, the government itself is the enemy of open data. In democratic societies, these structures change with the voting electorate. Martin suggests the movement must be alert to these changes and willing to capitalize on them. For example, a public outcry to curb spending could present an opportunity to educate the public on how open government data portals could create more accountability

Barrier #4: organizing a movement

The fourth barrier to open government data is the ability for the movement to organize itself. It’s finding the resources needed to support the open government data movement. From funding to developing the technology skills necessary to build an open data portal, Martin suggests these hurdles will be difficult to overcome; especially in situations where financial resources would need to be diverted from underserved populations.

Barrier #5: wishful thinking

The final barrier is in fact, the movement itself. Martin’s research shows that the barriers to open government data are perceived to be widespread. However, Martin suggests that policymakers within the movement believe these barriers should just naturally fall away when citizens realize the “obvious value and virtue” of open government data. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s going to take extensive work to overcome these and other barriers to open government data.


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