Pilot Open Municipal Information: the needle in the digital haystack

‘Gemeenteraad Amsterdam bijeen over bestuursstructuur van Gemeentelijke Universiteit’ by Bert Verhoeff (Anefo 1980). Collection: Beeldbank Nationaal Archief. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Publishing minutes, decisions, bills, agendas and other documents of the city council as open data strengthens the information position of city councilors, inhabitants and journalists. Open State has written about unfindable voting results and the wish to publish municipal information as open data before. Now with the support of the Dutch Interior Ministry the Open State Foundation started the pilot Open Municipal Information together with the municipalities of Amstelveen, Den Helder, Heerde, Oude IJsselstreek, Utrecht and Westland.

After this pilot all the unstructured public information of the city councils of these six municipalities will be made available as harmonized and structured open data. This makes it possible to visualize the data and developers can start building apps or websites that make the local democracy stronger.

Why do municipalities participate in this pilot? At the ‘Doe Open Festival’ on the 18th of May Pascale Georgopoulou (municipal clerk of the Municipality of Amstelveen) talked about the use and need of Open Municipal Information. This is a shorter version of her introduction where she talks about why she participates in the pilot.

Open Data: a side issue

“Amstelveen 2.0 is a Twitter-account that I hate. Whenever I put a new message on my website, this account automatically Tweets it, even before I get the chance to post it myself. It works through some kind of feed which my website is unable to use.

And Google. Even for my municipality you can better Google-search the information then navigate through the municipal website. The ads are inconvenient though. They seem to be surrounding the normal website content. Looking for a vacuum cleaner? You see them the whole time. But would it not be cool if someone were searching for ‘Amstelveen’ and sees ‘Tonight the city council of Amstelveen has a meeting about….’ on his or her screen?

As government we are lagging when it comes to information technology and innovation! Are we not smart or ambitious enough? Or do we not think it is important enough? Is not everyone aware that information and data are the fuel on which the government engine is running?

City councilor and the digital haystack

Imagine you are a member of the city council. You used to receive an envelope with your documents that you read. The supplements, financial specifications were not sent to your home, they were at the city hall, you never read those because you didn’t have the time. The next envelope with documents was waiting for you. Nowadays we receive all the documents digitally. Through the website or a special meeting-app stacked with all the supplements. What is need to know and what is nice to know? Every two years the amount of data doubles and in 2020 we will have 44 zettabytes of data. The problem is not the amount of data, but to find the data you need. This is the needle in the digital haystack.

Citizens cannot find what they are looking for

Imagine you want to know what is happening in your village or city. Your municipality might send you a letter, you read about it in the local newspaper, and yes, every four years: elections! There are voters that vote the same on the local and national level. And there are also voters that want to know which parties have an opinion about topics that concern them. Which party was in favor of building that school around the block? Which party was opposed to increasing the parking rates in the shopping center? And who does something for young people in my neighborhood?

In the best-case scenario you can find the answers to those questions on the municipal website. If you are able to guess the right word, because you are looking for ‘school’ and on the agenda it was called ‘integral educational housing plan’. And maybe you can find the minutes of the meeting, a document of about 80 pages. If you are able to find who was in favor, you still need to find the bill itself. Even more searching befalls you. Can you find it on the websites of the political parties? Do you have to attend council meetings or call city councilors? The citizens are lost in the web.

Municipal clerk as information technologist

Imagine you are a municipal clerk and you spend a great amount of your time publishing information on the website, app and social media. What is the city council going to decide, what did the council decide, a nice overview in the list of decisions, webcasts of council meetings, agendas, commentaries and press releases. You are working primarily for the council so they can take decisions. No argument, fact or opinion can be left out. Of course you are also doing this for the public. As municipal clerk you are more and more an information technologist. You have to talk with suppliers and other technicians, and you try to concretize your wishes and needs. Are you able to ask the right questions?

Strengthening the information position

Can the information position of the council on the one hand and citizens, companies and organizations on the other hand be strengthened with open data? Actually open data are a side issue! The most important thing is transparency, legitimacy and influence as part of the democratic interaction.

Transparency is about openness, visibility and accessibility of the local democracy. What are the topics? What are the decisions? What arguments and information are the basis of the bills and decisions? Who has which opinion and why? Legitimacy is about authority, support for various opinions and accountability for what has been decided. Are decisions made lawful? Can someone explain why this was the best decision? Influence is about possibilities that inhabitants have to voice their opinions and to co-create.

Open data makes information more accessible, grouped or analyzed, but above all ready for re-use. The technique doesn’t interest me. I am curious and have dozens of questions about how it is going to look and what you can do with it. Publishing information, without it being accessible for re-use, is indecent. It feels like saying to your city councilors and inhabitants: ‘you are allowed to see everything! Here! See what you can make out of it!”. Open and accessible data are part of a decent government. That’s what I want to be: decent!

For more information go to the website of Open Municipal Information.