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Are you open?

2 March 2018
by Guest author

Alison Rygh, OECD Public Governance Directorate

©Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times-REDUX-REA

In 2016, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) gave Google’s artificial intelligence company DeepMind access to healthcare data on 1.6 million hospital patients. The data was to be used for an app that identifies kidney problems. None of the patients had been contacted to give their explicit consent to such an arrangement, and the UK data guardian, the Information Commission, subsequently ruled that the NHS had not adequately protected the privacy of their data.

It is incidents like these that make Open Data Day, 3 March, something we should sit up and take note of. What exactly is open data, and more to the point of this article, what is open government data? Governments produce and commission huge quantities of data and information that cover the likes of maps, public transit schedules, meteorological information and much more. When government data is made publicly available it becomes open government data. In principle anyone can access, use, reuse and share the data, as long as the source of the data is properly accredited.

There are very good reasons for opening and sharing government data. For a start, it empowers citizens to evaluate public expenditure, or to improve or even get rid of certain services. The more datasets that are opened up, the better and more robust government decision-making will be. After all, decisions will be backed up by evidence and benefit from informed public participation as well. Open government datasets can also foster economic development because data, such as geo-spatial or cartographic information, can be used to improve private sector business models.

Governments that simplify their data-sharing practices and use data more openly tend to be more efficient. Take the “once only” principle, for instance. We as citizens should only have to provide the government with our personal data, such as name, address, birthdate, once, after which it is stored digitally in one central registry. It can be called up whenever we, for example, apply for government childcare assistance or subsidised housing. Not only is this more user-friendly but it allows services to be better tailored to our needs.

But efficiency isn’t everything. Democratic governments must be directed by citizens on how to use our personal data. We as citizens must decide how open or private we want our data to be. Clearly, there is a balance to strike between these safeguards and ensuring open data for better public governance. With people’s input, governments can set the boundaries in a trustworthy manner so that we can be assured that our personal data is protected or being shared ethically.

Citizens’ awareness and agreement to the government’s use of their data are therefore key. Belgium, Estonia and Spain are good role models, where each person can access their own online “citizen folder” to see if their data is being consulted or reused, and for what purpose.

The digital world clearly poses challenges for personal data, its storage and use, which may be compounded or possibly resolved by artificial intelligence (AI). What happens when governments begin to navigate personal data using algorithms, and make policy decisions based on this? The more open the better, right? These algorithms should be open and accessible so that governments can be held accountable. France is currently preparing a legislation on open algorithms with people’s rights in mind.

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While Open Data Day celebrates openness and transparency for better public policymaking, and showcases the products and innovations that come from working collaboratively on open data, it’s also a day for reminding governments that we care about how they manage our personal data. A great way to become more aware of what governments are doing in regards to open data is to consult the OECD OUR Data Index which assesses governments’ efforts to implement open data in three critical areas: openness, usefulness and reusability of government data including the availability and implementation of efforts to protect and anonymise personal data before publication.

Has this open data movement made you more or less “open” with your personal data? Tell us your story by emailing us at: [email protected]!

References and links

See more on Digital Government and Open Data at

Read the OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies at

Access the OECD Data Index at

Open Data Charter at

Open Data Day


La Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL)

Oderkirk, Jillian and  Elettra Ronchi (2017), “Governing data for better health and healthcare”, in OECD Observer No 309, Q1,

Revell, Timothy, “Google DeepMind NHS data deal was ‘legally inappropriate’”, New Scientist,

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