Who is representing citizens and their Open Data needs? 

Who is representing citizens and their Open Data needs? 

The role of non-profit organisations in bridging the gap between the citizens and open data providers.

In the Netherlands, the National Ombudsman received as many as 25.727 complaints in 2020, which he should adequately investigate. The importance of proper investigation is highlighted by the inadequate complaint handling in the recent childcare benefits scandal in the country. At the end of 2020, an investigation revealed that tax officials wrongly accused thousands of families of fraud and ordered them to repay back the childcare benefits between 2013 and 2019. As a result of that, many families became indebted and dealt with a lot of stress, and some children were removed from their homes.

Better complaints handling system could have helped with seeing the systemic problems that lead to this scandal. The way to improve the complaints handling is to publish complaints as open data. It constitutes government information that taxpayers are entitled to, but also analysing the data can help improve the services about which citizens complain.

Open data is the data that is accessed, shared, and reused by any user. The general aim of open data is the availability of information, helping to reach goals of transparency, democratic participation, economic growth, and societal benefits. In the European Union, the member states’ governments are one of the main open data providers as they are encouraged to open public sector information. To gain the benefits of opening public data, more citizens should know about and engage with them. 

The top-down approach is to disseminate information online and involve different citizens through the events such as hackathons or local workshops. Moreover, the European Commission recommends which datasets are high-value to open. The question is, does this approach bring awareness to the citizens in a  relevant way, and consider their data needs? And what if there is a bottom-up approach that better represents citizens?

Non-profit organisations (NPOs) focused on open data act as intermediaries between users and open data providers. They bring together open data providers and open data users – close the metaphorical bridge, so two sides can have a line of communication with each other. Being a non-profit, these organisations aim to solve societal issues and bring about the goals that open data promises to achieve. Historically, NPOs, such as Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) and Open Data Institute have played an important role in policy-making and other decisions about open data. NPOs focused on open data often aim to address citizens’ needs and engage them with open data reuse. 

The main activities that NPOs perform to achieve these are – advocating for openness, creating tools, and bringing awareness about open data. For example, they push the government to implement more effective open data policies; they create applications that allow citizens to use open data to solve a societal issue; they provide training on open data bringing awareness and improving skills of those who can benefit from it. People working for NPOs have experience, knowledge, and drive that helps them build connections with the government as an open data provider. 

For NPOs to solve societal issues and actively address the needs of citizens with open data, they need to set up a connection line with people. Gathering citizens’ feedback and understanding of issues they face and could solve with open data would help make the process demand-driven. That is one of the important aspects of achieving open data goals. However, NPOs often do not reach out to citizens to direct their projects themselves but make their own judgement on what needs citizens have and would benefit from addressing. One of the big reasons is the lack of resources and funding that NPOs face, making it harder to create feedback channels and survey the citizens. 

Given the nature of the tools created by such NPOs, it is hard to assess who uses them, how open data is reused, or what impact they have. NPOs might collect data on the number of people visiting the website/using the tool, but it is not specific about the types of users or the way they use this tool further and for what ends. Some more prominent open data NPOs, like OKF or Open State Foundation (OSF), have an effect on the direction and efficiency of certain open data policies. That might influence the reuse of data and its impact. However, it is not an influence that is easy to assess. Considering these points, can it be said that NPOs can address citizens’ interests and needs relating to open data? 

How personal or abstract for the citizens the goals of NPO are, affects their engagement with the organisation. The often-found focuses of open data non-profits, such as transparency, appear too abstract for an average person. Many NPOs and other civic organisations that have a narrow focus on a societal problem are closer to their communities and solve specific issues. They get more interest from citizens as they involve people that are not aware of open data and not focused on more abstract open data-related concepts but would like to solve a problem at hand. 

A possible solution for citizens’ open data needs representation comes from more collaboration between NPOs who are able to open the data and make use of it and NPOs that are outside of the open data movement. For example, the OSF’s collaboration with the Vote for a Woman Foundation, for which they gathered open data on all candidates for the municipal elections of 2018 in the Netherlands and gained insight into the gender balance of the candidates and their geographical distribution. Open Knowledge Germany’s project, Data School, is an educational program on the subject of data and technologies, targeting other NPOs to support social and political projects. Instead of just creating a new tool, they aim to improve the access of existing organisations and citizen groups to data and technologies. 

To conclude, we can ask NPOs focused on open data: Is opening up the data for openness’ sake enough or usefulness and impact for the citizens should be more prioritised? How can there be demand-driven policy-making around open data if the users’ needs are not represented? And can NPOs find a solution by focusing on collaboration with other third-sector organisations?


Liubov Pilshchikova

Delft University of Technology,