Recently, the Technologiestiftung Berlin released a report on “Open Data in the Berlin City Government”. The report, which is available to read here (in German), assesses the status quo of Open Data within the city government and offers recommendations for how policies and processes can be improved to better meet the needs of both data publishers and data users. The findings made it clear that despite a robust number of datasets published on Berlin’s official Open Data portal and general support for Open Data emanating from the city’s leadership, much room for improvement remains with respect to everyday data-related processes. For example, many government offices lack an oversight of what data they have in their possession, and the absence of individuals tasked with coordinating data publishing activities breeds confusion about who is even responsible for “doing” Open Data.
It’s easy to identify problems in the system. It’s much harder to actually decide how these problems should be addressed and fixed and who should be responsible for doing so. Some of these challenges will need a top-down approach: it is unlikely that Berlin’s complex web of offices, authorities and departments will be able to organically generate a data coordination strategy that meaningfully connects different bodies while avoiding redundancies and inefficiencies (remember that Berlin’s government structure is made particularly complicated due to its status as both a city and a federal state). But other challenges can potentially be addressed with a bottom-up approach in which individuals’ needs are addressed on an ad-hoc basis.
Recognizing that there will be no single, all-encompassing solution to improving Open Data processes in Berlin, the Technologiestiftung in cooperation with the Senate Department for Economics, Energy and Public Enterprises (Senatsverwaltung für Wirtschaft, Energie und Betriebe) is opening an “Open Data Information Center” (in German, “Open Data Informationsstelle”, or ODIS for short). In this document, we’d like to explain a little more what our motivation for creating ODIS was, and what we’re hoping to learn and achieve through it.
As its name implies, we envision ODIS serving as a central point for both the generation and dissemination of information related to Open Data in Berlin. This is obviously a broad mandate. To kick off the center’s work, we’ve initially focused on three main functions which address some of the challenges and shortcomings present in the current Berlin Open Data landscape as identified by the Technologiestiftung in its report. These focuses aren’t the full extent of what we hope to achieve with ODIS, nor do we expect that addressing these three points alone is enough to comprehensively transform the way Open Data is generated, managed, and published in Berlin. But, they give us an excellent starting point from which to begin gathering knowledge and experience about Open Data in Berlin, which we can then utilize to further develop and tailor our advocacy and support efforts to the specific needs of data users and publishers in Berlin.
Serving as a sort of “help desk” for practical Open Data-related questions coming from the city administration
Currently, there’s no clear point of contact for employees of the city administration who have questions related to Open Data (or even data in general). Most departments don’t have a designated data coordinator, and coordinators of the Berlin Data Portal generally do not have the resources to assure the quality of the datasets published to the portal in addition to handling the everyday logistics of keeping the portal active and running. ODIS can enter this void and provide city employees with assistance and resources related to building, publishing and utilizing datasets intended for public release.
Networking within the city administration to get a better idea of who is already doing meaningful data work and where there are opportunities to connect people working on similar projects
The motivation for intra-government networking is two-fold. First, ODIS wants to build more general interest in and excitement for Open Data within the Berlin government; a good way to do that is to help people realize that they are not alone – it’s much easier to be outspoken about a topic when you know you’re not the only person who feels that way. Second, we want to make it easier for government employees working on Open Data-related projects to learn from and coordinate with each other. For example, some Berlin boroughs have already appointed data coordinators responsible for having an overview of what data their borough is generating and what forms this data is published in. The data coordinators of different boroughs have already begun exchanging knowledge and best practices amongst themselves via e-mails and regular meetings; this is particularly useful since many boroughs are generating the same kinds of data (for example, demographic statistics) and ideally all boroughs would publish this data using the same standards to ensure comparability. Their activities could provide an excellent model for other government bodies to emulate – except many people don’t even know these positions exist and the work that they are doing. Thus, there is a clear need to better communication and networking within the government to increase the likelihood good ideas are noticed and have the chance to spread.
Ensuring the usefulness of data, both through demonstrating possible applications via prototypes and through connecting data publishers with data users
When trying to navigate the oft-bewildering world of Open Data (from understanding the necessary data structure to figuring out how to publish it in the Berlin portal), it’s easy to lose sight of the reasons you’re doing this to begin with – i.e., for whom you’re actually publishing data, and what the data is actually useful for. ODIS hopes to help Berlin data publishers regain that focus through two initiatives. First, we want to continuously develop new prototypes based on Open Data that demonstrate the utility of this data. The Technologiestiftung Lab has already developed some applications of Open Data, such as Kita-Suche, which helps Berliners find daycares in the city, and the Broadband Berlin site (German only), which visualizes the availability of high-speed internet in the city. Second, we want to establish stronger connections between data publishers and data users. Berlin has a thriving Open Data community, but the meetups and associated activities are generally very focused on what people are building with Open Data and usually have little involvement from the data publisher side. We want to help bridge this gap, such as through hosting events that have the explicit intention of bringing the Berlin city government and data users from the Berlin community together. This offers each side the chance to learn from the other and potentially build productive future relationships.
As mentioned above, our three starting points are not the extent of what we want to achieve with ODIS. How exactly ODIS and its focuses will evolve remains to be seen. We want this to be an iterative, dynamic process whereby our focus areas are shaped by the needs and demands of the city employees and our initiatives are shaped by our experiences of what actually works and what doesn’t. As part of the process of reflecting on what the goals and focuses of ODIS should be, we identified a lengthy list of guiding questions we’d like to answer – or at least reflect upon – as part of our work. In the interest of making the motivations and goals behind ODIS more transparent, we’ve pulled a few of the questions from this list that we thought best characterized the big picture behind ODIS, particularly the challenges we foresee and the opportunities with which we will be presented.
Many of these questions are actively being answered by governments in other cities and countries, and we fully intend to learn from their experiences by reading reports, conducting personal interviews, and maybe even making the occasional field trip outside of Berlin. But there are never one-size-fits-all approaches in governments and policy making. We can learn from other places, but we also need to apply our own knowledge about the institutional structures and cultures that are unique to Berlin. The goal is to blend both of these to come up with approaches for the city of Berlin that are ideally backed up by international experience, but which also fit into the specific context of Berlin.
What is the actual added value of Open Data? Who profits from it, and how can this be measured (if measurement is even possible)?
This question might seem odd coming from a self-professed “Open Data Information Center” – surely we should be the ones with a ready-to-go answer to this question? But from our perspective, too many advocates of Open Data rest on recycling the same broadly stated benefits of Open Data without critically engaging with said benefits (even we have engaged in this). Open Data is a great way to increase transparency, we hear again and again, but far less common are attempts to assess what the impact of this transparency really is – do citizens actually feel like they understand their governments better? Has this increased transparency enabled analyses of the government’s work that were previously impossible?
As part of our work and research at ODIS, we don’t want to presume we already know the answer to questions like these and in the process pass up valuable opportunities to increase our understanding of the role Open Data in Berlin. We want to explore whether Open Data is having an impact in Berlin. If it is, we want to know what these impacts are and how they can be quantified and measured. If Open Data isn’t having any impact (at least, not one that we can discern), we want to know why not, and whether something can be done to change this.
To what extent is digital innovation in government possible? What are the prerequisites for it to both occur and succeed?
The answer to this question is relevant not just for Open Data but also for a host of other areas where the city of Berlin is trying to both keep up with and to set itself apart from its peers; this includes areas like Smart Cities and e-government services. All of these topics represent cases where governments will only find success if they are willing to take risks and try out new policies, workflows, and institutional structures.
We are hardly the first people to ask a question like this, and there already exists a vast catalog of articles on the topic, from blog posts written by experienced practitioners to academic papers published by public management experts. But it’s still a question worth asking and reflecting on in the context of Berlin, where very little digital innovation in government has occurred thus far (although it is constantly discussed). What can we learn from other cities and countries that have successfully brought more innovation into their administrations – and to what extent can we adapt and adopt the strategies employed by other governments to the Berliner context?
How much change can we – a team of just a handful of people – reasonably expect to enact when facing a 100,000 person city administration?
This question is related to the previous one, but coming at it from a different angle: sure, governments are hard to change in general, even if you have huge amounts of time, money and personnel to throw at the problem. But what about when you are just a few people trying to improve processes (for a major capital city, no less) that cut across all government bodies and involve various levels of management: is it even possible to make a dent in the status quo under such circumstances? How can we leverage what influence we do have to persuade high-level civil servants to enact policy changes that promote better Open Data practices (for example, the aforementioned need for a network of data coordinators across government departments)? And how can the interactions we have with individual city employees when fulfilling our function as a help desk be used to create widespread, sustainable change rather than simply localized, one-time assistance?
We’re optimistic enough to say the answer is yes, we can make a dent in the status quo in Berlin – but we’re also realistic enough to say that we’ll probably need time to find the perfect strategy, and that we may not be immediately successful. ODIS is a new initiative that doesn’t have any precedent in Berlin, so we may make some mistakes along the way, or decide we need to try a different tactic. But, we plan on documenting our experiences along the way and providing regular updates on our projects, in the hopes that we can contribute to the international body of knowledge surrounding Open Data and governments and possibly help other governments or institutions trying to do similar work.
Learn more about ODIS by visiting our website: https://odis-berlin.de/