Open data strengthens democracy

/ Author: Jan Hendriks
© Hollandse Hoogte / Lex van Lieshout
The non-profit organisation Open State Foundation promotes transparency and strives to make public information accessible to everyone. They believe this is essential to foster greater responsibility, accountability and participation. Statistics Netherlands’ (CBS) data portal has proved useful in this regard as Open State Foundation relies heavily on it for public information.

Digital transparency

Tom Kunzler, deputy director of Open State Foundation, is confident digital transparency will benefit democracy. He states: ‘We are happy to report it is not just journalists, active citizens and public authorities that are using our services. Much of the data that we have made available is increasingly being used by civil servants at a municipal, provincial and national level. There is a real need to compare data in this way.’

Legislative and Executive powers

Open data use is also on the rise among legislative and executive powers, such as council members and members of parliament. And this trend can be observed in the corporate sector as well. ‘Dutch construction groups will frequently check whether a municipality has sufficient funds before even entering into talks about possible infrastructure projects.’ Kunzler acknowledges. Open State Foundation has also risen in status over the past years – a development Kunzler is particularly pleased with. He explains: ‘We initially operated as a pressure group called ‘Hack the government’ and were seen as a thorn in the government’s side. Now, the government frequently turns to us for help when looking to increase their transparency.’

Closer collaboration with CBS

Open State Foundation and CBS have started collaborating with one another more closely. Kunzler expands on this: ‘In 2013, we asked CBS to provide us with IV3 data, which they received from the municipalities. They refused our request due to privacy concerns. The municipalities submit these reports to CBS six times a year, in the form of standardised Excel tables. CBS’ reaction therefore prompted us to take action: we asked all municipalities to submit this information to us directly as we were entitled to access it under the Freedom of Information Act. Two hundred municipalities instantly complied with our request.’ Kunzler adds: ‘It was this transparency on the part of the municipalities that helped convince CBS to start publishing this information as open data from October 2015 onwards. I would call that a victory.’

Joint objectives

Kunzler notes his organisation and CBS are increasingly on the same page when it comes to their objectives regarding data structures and open data. He tells us: ‘CBS has participated in the Accountability Hack on two separate occasions. We organise this hackathon to help participants use open data to monitor and analyse government performance and government accountability in terms of expenditure. The last two hackathons were held in the Court of Audits and the House of Representatives buildings.’

‘Now, the government frequently turns to us for help in increasing their transparency.’

Different interpretations

Kunzler informs us that CBS and Open State Foundation are currently working on a pilot together. He has this to say: ‘Municipalities and regional authorities are required to submit so-called IV3 data to CBS, in the form of standardised Excel tables. The data these financial reports contain is highly aggregated, meaning different interpretations are possible. This is why we request that the municipalities send underlying, more detailed financial data to CBS. They are not obliged to do so, but we request that they do in the interest of transparency.’

Important role for CBS

Tom Kunzler believes CBS will continue to play an important role in expediting the standardisation and harmonisation of data sets. He explains why clear registration and coding are so essential in converting data into valuable information: ‘If each municipality produced their own overview of the polling station addresses, it would be near impossible to design an app that could be used by any Dutch person to locate the nearest polling station. This demonstrates the importance of recording data in a uniform manner.’ It also explains why Kunzler is so appreciative of the unique municipal codes CBS uses. He does, however, add: ‘We are not there yet in terms of data harmonisation – there is still plenty for us to do. CBS is especially well-equipped to facilitate this process further.’