In the wake of the disappointing news that, despite being a founding member, the UK Government is at risk of being struck from the global Open Government Partnership, there’s been a flurry of noise across the democracy sphere about open data. Open data is a topic that, like so many others, is extremely valuable and important but has faded somewhat from the sector’s imagination in favour of the next democracy trend. The current favourite is political parties as NFTs (not really).

That’s not to say it’s been completely forgotten about – there is a level of expectation that certain data sets will be made public that wasn’t there five years ago, and many public servants and activist organisations are very aware of/proactive about the need to work in the open. But I think the motivation and enthusiasm surrounding open data and governance could use a refresh – so here’s a love letter to open data and why it’s important for engagement (and literally everything else.)

Transparency = accountability

You’ve probably heard us banging this particular drum before, but it’s always worth repeating. Government can’t be held accountable if its working is hidden behind closed doors. This applies to democratic decision-making in particular and it’s why publishing responses or feeding back outcomes after running an engagement exercise is so important. Even if an outcome isn’t what the public wanted, it’s important to explain why, or citizens will feel disenfranchised and mistrustful of the process. Openness breeds trust, trust breeds better and more informed input, informed input breeds better decisions.

Good open government reforms can transform the way government and public services work, ensuring that they are properly responsive to citizens, while improving their efficiency and effectiveness, and preventing abuses of state power.

Open Government Partnership

Climate change

Undoubtedly the biggest and most urgent need for open data relates to climate change. We can’t limit warming if we don’t know whether warming is going up or down. Open data has enormous practical implications for public bodies on the route to net zero: we need to know what land is being used for what purposes, which areas have highest pollution concentration, where electric vehicle charging points exist, what shipping routes are used where – which requires all authorities, all over the world, to keep that data publicly available. Using open datasets and mapping vastly increases the quality of public engagement based around climate, like transport or land use, fostering deeper understanding of the issues we face and how to solve them.

Cross-boundary collaboration

Following from the above, open data is essential for local and national authorities to communicate with each other, particularly in matters of land management, environmental protection and major infrastructure. If you’re consulting on a cross-boundary project you can’t accurately inform your respondents unless the data from neighbouring authorities is also available. Additionally, In a general sense, open data helps massively to break down organisational silos and aids cross-department communication.

There are millions more reasons I could get into but hopefully you get the idea. From Delib’s perspective, open data played a huge role in our development of Citizen Space Geospatial and continues to do so: whether it takes the form of a geoJSON showing the location of all the trees in a London borough or an organisation publicly blogging about national decision-making, open data and governance is a foundation of modern democracy. Time to get excited about it again.