When attending an Open Data Conference in Germany these days, one might wonder whether the participants have discovered a new type of species. A mysterious species that knows what to do with data. An intelligent species that is able to find treasures on confusing websites and to understand government speech full of bulky words. A species that somehow miraculously takes the CSV and WMS files thrown at it and turns them into beautiful new applications for the benefit of all.
Let me summarise some of the reasons why the Open Data discussion in Germany is missing out on major opportunities.
First of all, I admit that I am biased. I am biased because before I immersed myself deeper into the world of Open Data, I stumbled across a French company called OpenDataSoft. A company that developed a platform because it believes that anyone should be able to publish and reuse data, no matter his or her level of technical expertise. Before I had even seen one single German Open Data portal, I was already familiar with the portals of theParis region Ile de Franceor theUS-city and county Durham, N.C.I thought this was the standard and also applied to Germany. Boy, was I wrong…
There are over40 open data portals in Germany– including municipalities, regions and other organisations. Around 30 cities publish open data on some sort of portal, meaning there is a dedicated page on which users find structured data ready to download. This is a good start, for sure, until you realize that this represents merely 40% of all cities with more than 100k inhabitants.
However, what’s even more worrying than the quantity is the quality of some of these portals, not to mention the data they publish. Do not get me wrong: there are amazing Open Data projects of cities likeBonn,Moersand many others. Countless committed pioneers have done a remarkable job in building an ecosystem and pushing the open data topic forward in Germany.
When it comes to a lot of other portals, however, one cannot help but wonder whether the publishers confuse “open data” with “open information.” Just to recap: Open Data refers to machine-readable, structured data. Hence, publishing information in PDF or Word documents does NOT mean Open Data. Publishing largely aggregated data in excel files with multiple sheets does NOT equate to Open Data. Lastly, even the many geo portals providing WMS files without their accompanying WFS files that contain the data points CANNOT be considered Open Data. This would be as if someone took a picture of a map in their grandfather’s atlas and then uploaded it somewhere. How are developers supposed to build anything on top of that?
Let’s imagine a typical Open Data use case: Alex the developer wants to build a transportation app for her mid-sized hometown in Germany. Today, the process to get the data she needs to build such a service might look like this:
Even if she finds the information she is looking for, she will first have to perform some data cleaning before transforming the file into the needed format. All this before she can combine it with additional data.
Given this lengthy process it is not surprising that many communities wonder “Who is supposed to do anything with our data?” And they are right! One can hardly imagine that anyone would be willing to go through this process voluntarily.
Sadly, such a complicated approach towards Open Data results in frustration on both sides: government employees in charge of the program do not see the results they were hoping for, and end-users continue to struggle to use the published data.