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Opening the Cities: The Case Of The City Of Buenos Aires And Some Other General Reflections On Open Government Data Initiatives

Over the past two decades the way in which individuals access government information has changed. The principles behind Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation and Open Government Data (OGD) initiatives are similar, however the tools and the formats in which that information is published have varied. Open Government Data initiatives introduce a new way to access and use the data produced and held by governments.

In this context, several local governments in Latin America, and around the world, have begun to implement OGD policies. It is often argued that local governments are the closest level of government to the people and, in that sense, they can produce greater changes to people’s lives. They are also frequently at the forefront of openness and participation experiments.

Following those ideas, together with a team of researchers from Brazil  (Ricardo Matheus and Manuela Ribeiro) and Uruguay (Fabrizio Scrollini), we decided to embark on a project on Open Government Data policies in local governments in 3 important cities in the Southern Cone of Latin America: Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Sao Paulo. This research, "Opening the Cities: Open Data in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Sao Paulo”, is part of a broader project on the impact of open data policies in developing countries (ODDC) supported by the Web Foundation and IDRC.

In the case of Buenos Aires, the capital city of Argentina, the OGD policy officially started in the first months of 2012. The introduction of the topic in the policy agenda there can be awarded to a combination of three elements: 1) "entrepreneurs" within the public sector, 2) as well as outside it, along with 3) a stream of ideas, which was emerging in some countries of the northern hemisphere. All came together in late 2011 when the local elections produced a window of opportunity[1] to introduce these new ideas.

One of the main features of Open Government Data policy in the City of Buenos Aires is the decentralized nature of the responsibilities towards the disclosure of government data. The responsibilities and "ownership" of the data are under a decentralized process: each agency is responsible for authorizing the release of the data they produce. This type of measure took some pressure off from the shoulders of the newly created agency (Office of Information and Open Government) and, therefore, left some room for this new unit to focus on other aspect of the policy implementation. However, it is necessary to point out, following John Wonderlich, that this type of initiatives could be simply dismissed or ignored by agencies that decide not to release information[2]

The efforts of the Office of Information and Open Government have been focused on two main areas: "Data Generation" and "Open Government Culture" (content’s management). Most of the resources of this agency are focused on the latest of these areas, aimed at building capacity and creating a community of users. This is so as greater demand for government data also gives the Office Information and Open Government more bargaining power with other agencies to demand greater amounts of data to be published via the OGD portal.

Even before the establishment of the General Direction of Information and Open Government, a community around OGD started to be created. Around 2009 a small number of developers and members of civil society organizations in Argentina were already working on these topics (at the beginning with few available resources but investing many hours of work to clean and to access data that were not yet released in reusable formats). Over the past few years Open Government Data has gained popularity and became a “mainstream” topic among developers and organizations working on government transparency and access to public information. These actors play a crucial role in OGD policies, as not every citizen is eager to engage with transparency initiatives (due to a lack of interest, skills or resources). Thus, the existence and capacity of technically skilled intermediaries is likely to be an important determining factor for the success of open data interventions. 

Some of the product that civil society actors have created are published in the Buenos Aires Data website <data.buenosaires.gob.ar>. This portal contains 49 applications[3], which were built using the data provided in the portal (some of them are results of the competitions and events organized by the Direction of Information and Open Government). These applications are based on data from a variety of topics, such as education, transit, culture, and security, among others. Despite this variety and the actors that have been involved in creating these applications, the use of OGD is still limited[4] (not only in the case of the City of Buenos Aires but in most of these initiatives).

In more general terms, Open Government Data policies, by relying on proactive publication of information tend not to encourage confrontation between civil society actors and governments, as it could be the case with some information requests under FOI laws when governments are not willing to release the requested information. This proactive disclosure of information, in the context of open data policies, might partially explain why- unlike FOI laws- many of these policies were driven (or at least not resisted) by actors within the public sector. In global terms, while the FOI diffusion took several years, local and national governments in many countries quickly adopted Open Data policies. This is the case of the City of Buenos Aires where the Chief of Government provided an extensive support to this policy.

At the stage of implementation, information disclosed in the framework of open data initiatives in cities is focused, often very successfully, on providing information about city services such as transport, cultural activities. Examples of this disclosure are the more than 70 datasets provided by the City of Buenos Aires in their Open Data portal. Yet, in terms of one of the main Open Data goals, “transparency towards accountability”, they don't seem to be as successful. In that sense, the city of Buenos Aires is part of the rule and not the exceptions.

In that same line, OGD portals are among the most common commitments made by governments to get closer to the idea of Open Government, as those portals can provide an appearance of government transparency. However, in practice, Open Government Data initiatives in cities seem to be closer to the idea proclaimed under the “smart cities” label than to the Open Government principles. A city can offer new ways for people to access public services they deliver but it doesn’t mean that they provide the information and institutional channels for citizens and organizations to know how those services are funded, implemented (among the vast amount of information a city- or any other government- should disclose to get closer to the idea of an open government).

For a local (or any other government) a focus on the effective and timely disclosure of politically important data is the only way to really get closer to the idea of Open Government. However the focus on a proactive approach and the potential offered by technology seduces cities towards taking the option(s) that deliver minimal advantages in the terms of transparency and accountability. Therefore whilst the potential and promise of Open Government Data is enormous, its impact in terms of achieving Open Government at this point in time, it is still limited.

As a summary, if OGD portals are tools aimed to achieve greater government openness, there is still much work to be done by governments as well as civil society actors. In that sense, it is left to be seen if this policy (in the City of Buenos Aires as well as in other cities and countries) will scale and what kind of real impact will produce in the long run, or if only a few skilled actors will take advantage of these public resources.



* Original post: http://silvanafumega.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/opening-cities-case-of-city...

[1] Policy entrepreneurs, according to Kingdon, are able to identify and use "windows of opportunity" to promote changes in policy environments. (Kingdon, 1984) In this context, as in other areas, opportunities must be early recognized in order to achieve the desired outcomes.

[2] Wonderlich, J. (2011) Obama's Open Government Directive, Two Years On: http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2011/12/07/obamas-open-government-dir...

[3] http://concursos.buenosaires.gob.ar/buenos-aires-apps/apps/

[4] Moreover, the agency in charge of implementing the OGD initiative is not always aware of the actual use of the data by third parties (the more datasets and users, the more difficult to track every application or report) Sometimes, only when a problem occurs with one of the datasets, the administrators of the OGP portal could become aware of the users of such data.