Research on Open Data and Transparency

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Some collected new (ish) work on FOI and Open Data


Some collected new (ish) work on FOI and Open Data. All are free to access on the links…

Worthy, Ben and John, Peter and Vannoni, Matia, Transparency at the Parish Pump: A Field Experiment to Measure the Effectiveness of Freedom of Information Requests (December 4, 2015). Available at SSRN: (see also FOI man’s excellent summary here and this longer assessment 201607-parishcouncils)

Worthy, Ben, Freedom of Information and the Media (September 12, 2016). Available at SSRN:

Worthy, Ben and Hazell, Robert, Disruptive, Dynamic and Democratic? Ten Years of Freedom of Information in the UK (December 28, 2015). Parliamentary Affairs, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Worthy, Ben, The Impact of Open Data in the UK: Complex, Unpredictable and Political (March 5, 2015). Public Administration 93 (3): 788-805, 2015. Available at SSRN:

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New Paper: The Impact of Open Data in the UK: Complex, Unpredictable and Political

revenue expenditure01Image


This article examines the democratic impact of the UK Coalition Government’s Transparency Agenda, focusing on the publication of local government spending data as the first steps in an evolving ‘ecology’ of Open Data transparency. It looks at whether the Open Data has driven accountability, participation and information transmission. Rather than forging new ‘performance regimes’ or bringing mass use and involvement, the publication of spending data adds a further element of political ‘turbulence’ that can ‘punctuate’ the ‘equilibrium’ of local politics (Hale et al 2013). The evidence finds that the spending data, so far, has driven some accountability but less participation or information transmission. Taken together, assessment of the three objectives reveals that the use and impact Open Data is far more complex, more unpredictable and more political than the rhetoric around Open Data indicates. The danger is that the gap between aims and impact invites disappointment from supporters.

Worthy, Ben, The Impact of Open Data in the UK: Complex, Unpredictable and Political (March 5, 2015). Public Administration 93 (3): 788-805, 2015.

Paper Available here :

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Who Is Using Open Data? Some More Thoughts



By their very nature users of open data are hard to track down. Looking at the most viewed and downloaded datasets for raises more interesting questions that it answers. There are a few interesting signs, such as the type of people and organizations requesting datasets from

My own research on local government publication of all spending over £500 tells us a little about who is using it. The findings are based on a mixture of FOI requests, surveys and interviews (you can see more stats here).

First, interest in the local spending data on local authority websites seems low. Based on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to local authorities, the average number of page views was 200, pretty low compared to visits to other sites (note visits and page views are different):

Site Visits per month 540,609 161,101
TheyWorkForYou 200-300,000
WhatDoTheyKnow 100-200,000

(Sources: Escher 2011, 2011, 2013)

Second, those who are using it seem to be a rather diverse bunch. Here’s a comparison of users of FOI at local government level (from this report) and the spending data.

Estimated breakdown of requester groups: FOI and spending data (%) null

The biggest user group appears to be business. The data may be very useful for tenders, contacts or competitors. As Jo Bates points out here, this raises some interesting questions as to who ultimately benefits from open data. Businesses are also big users of FOI at local level, from small ‘one person’ companies to multi-nationals.

Another significant user group is media. Authorities reported a ‘flurry’ of interest from journalists but one that often died down. A search of regional newspapers found 148 articles specifically using the term ‘spending over £500’ between May 2010 and August 2012. The spending data was used to question authorities, focusing on odd spending at a low level, such as this.

NGOs made up just 5% of all users of the spend data. High profile campaigns in the London borough of Barnet sat alongside smaller more focused uses by community groups over particular salaries or contracts. There’s also been some interesting innovations with, for example, Shelter using open data to build a searchable portal on homelessness.

The public were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the new data. Exactly who the ‘public’ users are remains a bit of a mystery. Like FOI, they may be a hard core group of activists with a wider, looser group made up of the curious or those seeking very specific information. There are a few, but not many, Armchair Auditors, who have not yet moved from settee to spending data.

One problem is that all these discrete categories are all a little too neat. Research by Tim Davies on found a mixed group of activists and ‘techy’ people, where the campaigner and person were one and the same person.

Another problem is that the research only tells us about those directly using the sites. From what we know from communication theory, opinion formers pass on information to others. Who, if anyone, is this data trickling down to? Not all users are equal – a journalist can have thousands reading a story. More importantly, who is using the new apps that and sites such as Openly Local or, and the Local Government Association’s LG Inform tool?

So different groups are using it different ways. There is no ‘average’ or ‘person on the street’ data users. This makes the future of open data very unpredictable. Just as it should be.

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Who Is Using Local Spending Data

Here’s some of the results of my survey of English Local Authorities on Open Data (£500 spending). You can also see it as a pdf Survey of English Local Authorities on Open Data

Conducted: April-October 2013 via online survey (BOS)

Population: 102 (2 x excluded)

1.     What type of transparency information is of most interest to users?

user interest

2. Which group or groups are the primary users of the data?


primary user pie chart



3. How would you characterise the level of use of the spending data?

q3 use level


4. What type of transparency will this data create?

q4 type of rans

 5. What type of transparency will this data create?


 q5 barriers


Pageviews of Spending Data on Selected Local Authority Websites January-December 2012[1]

Council Type Page Views per month (average)
District 35
District 87
District 99
District 341
Borough 355
District 437
City 450
District 528
District 610
District 636
City 2021


Comparative Visits for January 2012 on government and non-government Open Data sites

Site Visits per month
Local Council Average 200 540, 609 161,101
TheyWorkForYou 200-300,000
WhatDoTheyKnow 100-200,000

( Esche 2011)

For more details

Worthy, Ben, ‘David Cameron’s Transparency Revolution? The Impact of Open Data in the UK’ (November 29, 2013). Available at SSRN:

Worthy, Ben ‘Evidence to PASC on the Aims of Open Data’

Worthy, Ben ‘Evidence to PASC on the Impact of Open Data’




[1] Based on FOI requests to English local authorities in 2013 asking for hits/views on spending data pages of their website.

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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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What can Open Data do for Parliament?

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New Research on Open Data: Making Transparency Stick and International Comparisons


Some autumn reading. Here’s a conference paper examining what could make Open Data succeed or fail over the next few years.Ben Worthy Making Transparency Stick-The Complex Dynamics of Open Data.

Here’s the abstract

This paper examines the complex dynamics of Open Data reform in the UK, assessing the chances of the policy ‘sticking’ or failing over time. Using the ideas of Patashnik and Zelizer (2013) on what makes policies succeed or fail post-enactment, it begins by looking at the unique features of Open Data. The broad but vague vision of the reform, its symbolism and ‘voteless’ status and the multi-instrument, multi-actor approach all make Open Data exceptional. The paper then examines how these play into the three factors that make a policy ‘stick’ or fail over time: the resources re-allocated by the policy, interpretation of its success by different actors and the institutional support it receives. It concludes by arguing that Open Data is likely to benefit from leadership and the ongoing innovation but may be threatened by resistance, manipulation of the aims and the underlying assumptions, which invite disappointment.’

You can also download it here Worthy, Ben, Making Transparency Stick: The Complex Dynamics of Open Data (September 17, 2014). Available at SSRN:

Paper two is this great piece by Tim Davies on international comparisons you can read here

New national Open Government Data (OGD) initiatives are being launched on an almost monthly basis. From Brazil to Burkina Faso, governments are establishing open data portals and committing to make machine-readable datasets available for re-use. Similar patterns are being replicated at the local level, with municipalities and sub-national states also establishing their own open data projects. At first glance, many of these local and national initiatives appear almost identikit copies of each other: using the same data portal software, and selecting similar datasets for their initial launch. Increasingly, the preparation and launch of open data initiatives follows a orthodox approach involving hackathons, training events and outreach activities, designed to build interest in, and demand for, newly available open data. Yet, the countries launching these OGD initiatives are vastly different: in their levels of development, their political structures, and their public policy priorities. This raises important questions about the nature of open data policy, and policy transfer.’

Davies, Timothy Glyn, Open Data Policies and Practice: An International Comparison (September 5, 2014). Available at SSRN: