What lies behind the fear of open data?

November 5, 2019


Countries that have access to open data have increased their GDP, while also saving lives. For example, studies show that open data helped decrease European road fatalities by 5,5 percent. It has also helped reduce the unnecessary waiting time on the road in the EU by 629 million hours.

We’ve been working to support the process of open data ecosystem building in Serbia since 2015. The progress has been slow, to say the least. High-value datasets (topographic data, address data, cadastral data, company register data, meteorological and hydrological data, healthcare data) are still not available in open data format.

Considering its many benefits, one would think that governments everywhere, including Serbia, would rush to open as many data sets as possible. However, that is often not the case. At UNDP in Serbia, we set to find out why.

The short answer: fear.

During our work with public servants in various government institutions and bodies, we heard these sentences and concerns over and over:

What if somebody changes our dataset and claim that it is the right data?”

“What would happen to my job if I released data? Then anyone would be able to create the same report I am compiling now!”

“What if somebody without proper expertise misinterprets our data? We would be stuck with having to deal with media and issuing formal statements”.

Perhaps the well-known fear of new things which challenge business-as-usual is to be expected. But we’ve also found that people working on a lower, operational level are not sure if they are allowed to release their data in an open format. Even though the law permits it, they still need to receive strong assurances from the management in order to get the job done. In the end, people working around these data are afraid that releasing data may have repercussions on their jobs – not to mention the increased workload of preparing datasets and releasing them.

We understand we need to address many of these fears before we can set for smooth sailing in these new waters. One way we found that works is to provide support and help in the initial phase – help in data preparation, quality assurance and assurance of management support for data release. The other is to show immediate benefits of open data release – promote data sets and stimulate reuse for public good and contribution to the mission of data holders. If the data holders are aware how open data can help their work and their mission, they will be more inclined towards releasing data despite the concerns they might have.

Changing old ways takes knowledge, courage and an open mind. Anyone working with public administration needs to invest time and effort to increase the knowledge of decision-makers, understand their concerns and make sure they do not lead to lack of action or slowing down the data opening process.

In our attempt to nudge the process in the right direction, UNDP Serbia prepared a study “The potential impact of open data in Serbia”. Apart from the desire to measure possible socio-economic impact, the study proposes priority domains and data sets to be released, to assist national authorities make the best use of open data for economic growth and sustainable development.

For instance, if we take the example from the beginning of this blog, Serbian traffic could have 32 fewer traffic fatalities per year and 8.5 million fewer hours of traffic congestion in a year. The more people see how using data can help improve their daily lives, the more they will be inclined to demand it.

The transition can only happen gradually, but it's important to make small steps forward each time the opportunity arises. Improving open data provision (e.g. sustainably publishing core data sets) and increasing overall readiness on both the supply and demand side (e.g. awareness of the potential to specific domains, and ability to collaboratively explore that potential) are currently the two main steps to enable the impact of open data in Serbia. A way forward is to ‘publish with purpose’. As mentioned in the Open Data Institute blog, data release would be more effective if it was focused on solving specific problems. Otherwise, the great potential of open data, in Serbia and elsewhere, will remain only that – a potential.

Want to know more? The study is available on the UNDP Serbia website.