Review of the opendata.ch 2011 Conference

On June 24th 2011, the opendata.ch 2011 Conference took place at the Swiss Federal Archives in Berne. Over 150 people from politics, journalism, science and technology gathered to hear about and discuss Switzerland’s future on the Open Government Data front. The day was filled with presentations by a diverse range of speakers, and a workshop session.

The Presentations

Prof. Nigel Shadbolt, Professor University of Southampton, Member Public Sector Transparency Board UK
In his opening keynote Prof. Shadbolt talked about how he and Tim Berners-Lee introduced Open Government Data to the UK and what it means for government and public. He presented evidence that Open Data improves transparency and accountability, and produces economic value, innovation and growth. Even the quality of government data was enhanced by the public’s fixing of over 18000 bus stop locations. Energy consumption of government buildings went down by 10 % after their usage data was made open.

He made a strong point about how freeing up government data fosters innovation, and that any restrictive license destroys the effort. To the question on how to convince skeptics he answered that we should get together people who are already doing stuff and show what you can do with Open Data.

“If you publish, the apps will come.”

Andreas Kellerhals, Director of the Swiss Federal Archives (SFA)
Mr. Kellerhals talked about the duties and challenges of archives. The SFA’s role is to document federal actions to keep them verifiable. At the same time it can’t keep everything (it’s simply unrealistic) and has the duty to decide which documents are important enough to keep. A big challenge is that there doesn’t exist a single point of orientation for the Archive, but they are working on a public solution to access all contents.

Barbara Schüpbach-Guggenbühl, State Secretary of the Canton Basel-Stadt
In her role as state secretary she probably has the most in-depth knowledge of the politic’s and administration’s inner workings (state secretaries are non-partisan and often stay in their job for a lifetime). When confronted with the demand of making data available in a machine-readable way, administration members are very often not even aware of this possibility, she reported. Less often than this, a fear of loss of interpretive sovereignty exists in administration. She explained how Switzerland’s political system differs from the USA and UK (we’re much less centralized), and that this means we have to take a slightly different approach. There is a big opportunity for the individual cantons to experiment with Open Data. However, it’s a challenge to keep them interoperable.

Jean-Philippe Amstein, Director of the Federal Office of Topography swisstopo
60 – 80 % of all political, economic and private decisions have a spatial aspect, geographic information is indispensable for a democracy. The socioeconomic return of CHF 1.– invested in geo-information is around CHF 4.– to 7.–. The problems of opening up the data is multi-faceted and complex, and consequences will be felt in many areas. Right now, the data holder can still sell data, so long-term financing is a big challenge.

Prof. Dr. Anton Gunzinger, Entrepeneur, Super Computing Systems AG, Professor at ETH Zurich
Dr. Gunzinger showed two inspirational big data projects his company is currently working on. They are making the Swiss Television’s whole video archive searchable down to a precision of 15 seconds. To put this in perspective, that’s in 125,000h (or 50 years, or 3.5 PB) of high-definition video material. Journalists will need to re-produce less material, and are able to verify, for example, statements of politicians (who are slightly uncomfortable with this idea, he joked). The other project was the measurement of trains’ wheel axle temperatures for safety reasons. This produces a lot of data and also valuable metadata about the trains, most of which is currently unused. He concluded with the thought that nothing should be kept around forever, that archives must be able to forget.

Hans-Peter Thür, Lawyer, Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner
Mr. Thür gave a comprehensive introduction to the Swiss freedom of information law (Öffentlichkeitsgesetz BGÖ). He outlined how official documents are defined, and what is covered by the BGÖ and what the exceptions are. E.g. by the current law, documents only have to be made accessible after someone’s request. He closed with examples where access to documents first was denied and eventually – after his intervention – opened by court order.

Martin Stoll, Journalist at SonntagsZeitung, Initiator Öffentlichkeitsgesetz.ch
As a surprise guest, Martin Stoll presented the miserable state of freedom of information in Switzerland from a journalist’s point of view. In a blistering talk he outlined how hard it is to request information. 31 % of all requests from 2006 – 2010 have been denied by the authorities. The Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Finance both lead with a denial quote of over 40 %. This is why he initiated Öffentlichkeitsgesetz.ch, a service which aims to assist journalists with their information requests.

Clemens Maria Schuster, Social Media Communications at World Vision Switzerland
Clemens Maria Schuster is the co-creator of DataMaps.eu, a web service to visualize geo-referenced data on maps. He talked about the inception and impact of the project, the technology, and how he created SVG templates on his train rides.

Christian Haeberli, Swiss Federal of Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss, Meteorological Data Coordination
Christian Haeberli talked about the complex processes involved in the gathering of meteorological data and the efforts it takes to make it internationally interoperable and consistent. There are still only five countries which make their data publicly available. It is clear that this has to change, as much can be gained for transparency, innovation, and international exchange. Therefore, access to Swiss meteorological data will be liberalized (i.e. available at no cost) by 2014.

Christophe Koller, BADAC
Christophe Koller presented BADAC, a web service which monitors the administrations of Swiss cantons and cities and makes the data available. It is a tool to compare and explain the different entities of Swiss federalism.

Armin Grossenbacher, Swiss Federal Statistical Office
Armin Grossenbacher reminded us that a lot of statistical data is already publicly available! So, embracing Open Data is a natural progression for statistical offices. Statistical services need to be improved by offering a global licensing model and making data referencable, machine-readable, and findable across multiple data silos. Metadata is important. Additionally, the Statistical Office also offers a service to help people understand the data. Data should not be left alone, it’s also in the provider’s duty to monitor its use and improve statistical literacy. There is great potential in Open (Government) Data, but there’s still a long way ahead of us.

Ronnie Brunner, Netcetera, Head of Solutions
Ronnie Brunner talked about a private company’s woes to get access to public transport data. Electronic data is very hard to get, and when you get it, the data quality is often quite poor. The legal foundation for access is there, but in practice there is still a lot of improvement needed in terms of completeness, documentation, availability, and cooperation with third parties.

Peter Fischer, Delegate for Federal IT Strategy
Peter Fischer recapped many points of the previous speakers. He raised the question if every use of Open Data should be tolerated, which he illustrated with the example of an insurance company using the data to calculate premiums. He also thoroughly praised the lunch buffet he had seen before coming to the presentation.

Workshop Session

After the lunch break, the attendees were split up to participate in five workshops to discuss Open Government Data from different perspectives. Additionally, we had the duty to discuss the proposed OGD Manifesto. Each workshop leader summarized what was talked about:

Politics Workshop: Going to Open Government Data definitely needs a mindset shift. The spirit was positive, although a few questions remain: How will it be financed? What has to be provided by government and what needs to be implemented by the private sector? It was felt that the benefits of OGD had to be researched more thoroughly.

Technology Workshop: In the thechnology workshop, I had the opportunity to present some benefits of Open Data for visualization designers. Prof. Abraham Bernstein followed with a excellent introduction to Linked Data. In the following discussion, the participants talked less about concrete technological solutions but agreed that the time is ripe to do stuff. Zurich with its eZuerich initiative emerged as a good place to start.

Law Workshop: The first thing noted was a matter of terminology; shouldn’t it be rather “information” than “data”? More pressing issues were the regulation of access to, and the usage of Open Government Data.

Journalism Workshop: Journalists saw the use of Open Data in “using data to make a point”. Building on this, they posed the question if data (selection) follows questions or do questions follow data (analysis).

Business Workshop: The business workshop’s outcome was more sobering. They couldn’t really identify the socioeconomic value, many concerns were still present, the benefits not really clear. But they saw potential for competition, especially for small, innovative companies.

Science Workshop: For the participants with a scientific background, the need for open access seemed to be clear. They highlighted that science could also benefit greatly from crowd sourcing. However, the issue of financing was still in the room. For libraries, for example, a complete opening just wouldn’t be feasible.

Closing Keynote

Rufus Pollock, University of Cambridge, Director Open Knowledge Foundation
The official part of the day ended with a truly inspiring presentation by Rufus Pollock. He talked about the importance of being truly open, that it means access for anyone and acts as a foundation of interoperability. Certain data is already public, but this doesn’t mean it’s open. He pointed out information technology as a possible solution for the growing information complexity. To take advantage of it, we have to make data open, because when it’s locked away in silos, it doesn’t scale. We have to engage people to use it and build an open platform.

“Make it a cool club people want to belong to.”

In closing, he reminded us us that we’re still at an early stage and patience is important, by quoting Michael Faraday: “Of what use is a baby?”

Conclusion

It was a great to see that Open (Government) Data ball was set rolling in Switzerland. I was surprised and pleased by the mostly positive vibe of the whole conference. It was clear that many people coming from different disciplines are unhappy with the current state of affairs, and that we must take action now. Some skeptics remain of course, and critical points like financing will have to be addressed.

I am thrilled about the perspectives and potential of Open Government Data. The first step has been taken, and we invite everyone to join us in this quest to make Switzerland more open. If you have data to provide, or are a data visualization maker, leave a comment or get in touch!

Many thanks to the hosts, organizers, coordinators and sponsors of this splendid event (and for having me as presenter in the technology workshop). Get to know more about them on the initiative’s website, read the press release, and the manifesto (in German). Join the mailing listSlides of the presentations are available too.

Update: Videos of the presentations are now online.

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  • Andreas Amsler

    Great summary and conclusion! As co-host of the Politics Workshop I would like to add another very important conclusion: In Switzerland a public debate about the benefits of Open (Government) Date is needed – maybe more than in other countries, since (1) our political system (even on the top level of the federal executive) is based upon compromise rather then upon a government-opposition system like e.g. in the U.K., where the ruling coalition or party has declared in their programm to go forward with Open Government Data. And (2): since without public pressure politicians in Switzerland will not promote the idea of Open Government Data, which is a necessary prerequisite for federal, cantonal, and communal executives to order the administration to enable and foster Open Government Data.

    • http://interactivethings.com Jeremy Stucki

      Thanks a lot Andreas, this is an essential aspect. What I was surprised by at the conference, was that there’s a fair amount of initiative from the inside (e.g. FSO (BFS), swisstopo, MeteoSwiss, City of Zurich). We really need to build on these efforts to get the public discourse going. As some speakers already noted, it’s important to actually build things that can be used to show the benefits (and perils?) of OGD.

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  • Hannes Gassert

    Short update: slides and videos are coming online at http://opendata.ch/opendata-ch-2011-materialien/

    • http://interactivethings.com Jeremy Stucki

      Thanks, I added the link to the article.

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