Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Who’s Doing What? PEW on American attitudes to Government Open Data

Some interesting research from PEW on American attitudes to government Open Data-see the full report here

Here’s some patterns on usage


Few Americans think governments are very effective in sharing data they collect with the public:

Somewhat larger numbers could think of examples in which their local government either did or did not do a good job providing information to the public:

  • 19% of all Americans could think of an example where the local government did a good job providing information to the public about data it collects.
  • 19% could think of an example where local government did not provide enough useful information about data and information to the public.

Relatively few Americans reported using government data sources for monitoring what is going on:

  • 20% have used government sources to find information about student or teacher performance.
  • 17% have used government sources to look for information on the performance of hospitals or health care providers.
  • 7% have used government sources to find out about contracts between government agencies and outside firms.

Here’s some thing else interesting-what does the American public think the benefits will be?


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Thanks to Thatcher? Where FOI Came from


Thtacher poster

Here’s a new paper on the development of FOI in Britain Ben Worthy Chapter for Felle Final


Before the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act of 2000, successive UK governments initiated a series of incremental openness reforms from the 1960s onwards. This process took place on two levels. At central government level, the debate began through growing pressure to reform the Official Secrets Act of 1911, which then transformed into discussion around access to information. At local government level, there was a more consistent and coherent opening up of access to meetings and decisions, with significant statutory access legislation passed each decade between 1960 and 2000.

Access to Information legislation, despite its powerful symbolism, is rarely a policy that attracts votes. It is frequently a ‘vote-less’ policy, exciting little electoral interest and reliant on media pressure, lobbying and a series of focusing events, helped intermittently by politicians pressured into action. As seen in other FOI regimes, in the UK the media helped provide the vital momentum. In the 1960s and 1970s, through highlighting (and inadvertently triggering) scandals, exposing secrecy in local and central government level and allying with a strengthening lobby group, the media continually kept openness on the political agenda. By the 1980s it formed part of a growing network, working with NGOs and MPs in pressuring for FOI. It remains a key defender, innovator and user of FOI (Hazell et al 2010).


Also here on SSRN




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WJP Open Government Index Raises Interesting Questions


In March 2015 the World Justice Project published its analysis of government openness in 102 countries, as measured by its Open Government Index. You can read the report here and browse the data and interactive maps here.  (See article.) The project gives a fascinating overview of where open government stands globally and, as we drill down into the data, how difficult it is to measure.

The Index Report offers us some very interesting answers to some of the key questions that academics and advocates have been asking about openness. For example:

How Many People Have Sought to Access to Information between 2013-2015?

The rather amazing figure here is that 11% of those asked have sought information in some way. If extrapolated across the 90% of the population that would cover, by my very rough calculations, 63 million people. The report, of course, does not claim this number makes requests under a law: its definition of request covers an ask “in any way, including oral requests and written requests, for information held by a government agency [that] is not reasonably accessible to the public by other means, such as public notices or information published online.” However many this translates into, this clearly makes up a large group of people across the world seeking government information.

Who Knows it Exists (and Who Is Not Using It?)

The evidence here is equally as interesting. The users of ATI across the developed and developing world seems to be weighted towards well-educated men with a (relatively) high income (see page 25 of the report). Those excluded are, as you would guess, those lower down the socio-economic scale (though high income countries don’t always do better than middle ones-see page 20).

There are also some interesting indications as why use is so lopsided. Less than half of those surveyed (40%) are aware of the existence of legislation with a heavy skewing of awareness, again, to the top of income scales. This matches detailed research in India, where users of the Right to Information Act were found to be overwhelming male (over 90%) with few requests from poor or marginalised groups who were largely unaware of it.

What Do They Want?

It seems that 40% of all requests are personal and private with 18% by businesses and 8% from the media and NGOs (see page 37). This means that 4 in every 10 requests across the world are for personal or private matters – so access laws are, in some sense, a “micro-political” instrument about day-to-day issues. Business use, considered by some to be against the “spirit” of access laws, also makes up nearly 1 in 5 requests.

Interestingly only 10% are classed as “political.” The idea that so few are political may require some unpacking and it depends, of course, what you mean by “political.” Again looking at India, while 16% of RTI requests are overtly aimed at expressing grievances, the 2014 RTI study found that “many more are ‘disguised’ versions of the same thing.” Requests about a very local issue, whether a hole in the road or access to water, may be seen as implicitly or overtly political in different situations.

The report illustrates the difficulties of measuring openness (and I very much sympathize here – I wrote a paper on how tough it is). Even deciding if a country has an ATI law is harder than you would think. Interestingly, the study concludes that 73 countries have access to information laws – fewerthan others have counted, perhaps because some “laws” may actually be executive orders or legal codes and some are still stuck in legislatures. This sort of analysis can, in time, help us to understand the difference between fully functioning and “paper” laws.

Other definitions can also be tricky. The four measures it uses to look at openness conflates, quite rightly, access laws and more general pro-active openness. What about those countries pushing openness by other means, or that are working quite separately on the reactive and active parts, such as the UK? Transparency International concluded recently that the UK’s “open governance regime is stronger in practice than in law” and this may be tricky to catch in an Index.

Questions Raised

The report raises lots of very interesting questions.

For example, how do you class a “political” request? We suspect to most politicians most requests are “political” – ask Tony Blair – so there may be a perceptions gap between users and recipients. How many requests are being made? The numbers here are different from the less than 1 in 1000 people who ever make an FOI in the UK or India’s 2.3 million RTI requests in 2011-2012 (though what exactly constitutes an ATI differs from country to country). So, many more people are ‘searching’ than formally using laws-this may tell us much about the future potential of openness more generally.

The awareness map on page 37 also raises plenty of potential questions – how is it that Belarus and SAR Hong Kong have a far higher awareness of access to information, with 96% and 73% respectively of those asked hearing of it, than those asked in the UK (57%) and Mexico (45%)? This may be more due to the various surveys that were used and who answered, I suspect, rather than a sign that Belarus is a paragon of openness awareness. One particularly good thing the report does is to capture not only the existence of laws but also what it calls the “enabling environment,” whether there is a right to speak out or a free press (see page 23).

The project is a very large, very thorough piece of work and I’ve only scratched the surface here. There are plenty more fascinating questions buried inside-have a look yourself.


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What Did People Want to Know During the Debates?

number 10

In the UK we have just had our one (and only) Leaders’ Debate involving seven of the UK’s main parties (Labour, Conservative, SNP, Liberal-Democrats, Party of Wales, The Greens and UKIP-though oddly excluding those from Northern Ireland). Here’s the top ten Google searches made during the debate, courtsey of Alberto Nardelli:

Google has been sharing with us the most googled questions through the debate. They were:

  1. Who is winning the leader’s debate?
  2. Who should I vote for?
  3. Who is Nigel Farage married to?
  4. What is a referendum?
  5. Where is Natalie Bennett from?
  6. Can I vote for the SNP?
  7. How do I register to vote?
  8. How tall is Nigel Farage?
  9. What is austerity?
  10. What does Plaid Cymru mean?


And the leaders in order of the popularity of their google search:

1. Leanne Wood

2. Nicola Sturgeon

3. Natalie Bennett

4. Ed Miliband

5. Nigel Farage

6. Nick Clegg

7. David Cameron

You can see analysis from the three way 2010 debate here and a very good article by Andrew Chadwick describing how social media has changed who has the power to shape such important ‘political events’, through opening up what he calls the political information cycle.