By Nika Aleksejeva
There is a very good environment for openness in Latvia. Nevertheless, open data is a somewhat alien term for many governmental officials, often times confused with the notion of “public data”. This is the main conclusion I had after informal talks with state representatives and open data enthusiasts at the School of Data Latvia Dinner that happened on the last week of August this year.
More and more, open data is needed by journalists, think-tanks and academics. The Editor in-chief of Delfi.lv, the leading national news portal in Latvia, Ingus Berzins, expressed a strong need for unconventional analyses of publically available data to produce stories that catch an audience’s attention. He gave an example of a global “infotaining” media outlet that published a list of data-driven arguments as to why the U.S. lags behind Canada. The unconventional angle and data-driven facts made it viral. Latvian media should use this approach too, advised Berzins. This need goes hand in hand with openly available data that a journalist can just download and save time not searching messy governmental web sites or writing official requests for information.
Iveta Kazoka, a researcher at the political think-tank Providus backed up the demand for openly available data as it can potentially increase evidence-based policymaking.
Also, the Head of the Latvian Association of Sociologists, Baiba Bela, stressed the need for publishing data sets collected for state-financed research purposes. Bearing in mind the fact that sociologists are both data users and suppliers, an open data portal will both optimise the work of sociologists and be of public benefit.
On the way to open data
There is much publically available data that every Latvian citizen can access online or request from a governmental institution. Nevertheless, this data accessibility fails to follow the eight open data principles, which are:
- Machine processable
Two major legislations provide guidelines for opening data: the Latvian Freedom of Information Law and the Directive 2003/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 November 2003 on the re-use of public sector information. Nevertheless, there is no obligation for public institutions to publish data following the eight principles.
But there is good news – the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development of Republic of Latvia is developing an open data portal that will collect public data-sets from 48 governmental institutions. Currently, the source for open data is projects that have been financed by European funds. The portal aims to change this by combatting current issues that prevent public data become truly open.
One of the most discussed challenges during the dinner was privacy. The Latvian Central Bureau of Statistics is forbidden to publish data that allows an individual to be identified even if the personal data is encoded. The rule applies if the filtered list of respondents can be narrowed down to four individuals. A suggestion to get at least some data public was to exclude the individuals from the data set, but then the data will be incomplete.
While many data sources are available online, they are often summarised statistics. The primary data set can be requested from the respective institution, but it takes time and some money for the service. In the case of the Latvian Central Bureau of Statistics, researchers can request complete primary data for free and if there are many similar requests, the Bureau publishes it online.
Another problem, that oftentimes prevents publishing primary data sets, is the trust issues public officials have towards open data users. The initiator of the Open Data Portal of Riga Municipality, Agris Ameriks, admits that plain data sets are useless – data must be visualised to make it meaningful. Ameriks expects it will generate demand for data, as currently, plain primary data sets are requested only by so-called “data geeks”.
This aspect of opening data is the one that creates the most scepticism. Many governmental institutions can publish complete and primary data sets, but there is no workflow to keep data constantly updated. If outdated, data becomes useless and suffers from opening data fade.
Some high value public data became a commodity for a couple of governmental agencies, ensuring a stable revenue stream – the Commercial Register’s data and the State Land Office’s data. Year-by-year, the revenue from selling data is included in the agencies’ budget and no one seems inclined to make this particular data openly available.
A Senior Consultant of the Digital Governance department of the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Regional Development of the Republic of Latvia, Toms Celmillers, admits that public officials oftentimes lack understanding about data openness. The fact that some data still gets published in PDF format can be explained by two human factors. First, public officials are used to working with documents and the PDF format is a digital version of a document. Secondly, the PDF format provides some sense that the published data won’t be modified.
These are the challenges that need to be tackled in order to open data in Latvia. It’s not only the fact that there is no particular law that makes public institutions open data. It’s also a lack of demand that is caused by an insufficient supply, which in turn is based on a lack of understanding about the value open data can bring to Latvian society.