Open data/open government

The right needles in the right haystacks

Intuitively, the unlimited availability of government data to businesses and citizens appeals to everyone. However, in practice, there are numerous technical and organisational pitfalls complicating the access to this information. The ICT research group of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TPM) is developing methods and instruments to make available, find and use the right needles in the right haystacks quickly and easily. 

The government has been gathering data for its own use for decades. This includes data on geographical and meteorological matters, as well as on environmental pollution, crime and law enforcement. Traditionally, these data have only been used by government experts. On the initiative of European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, there is now a guideline on how generally accessible government data can be made available for reuse. Citizens and business owners, such as app developers and programmers, can purchase these data from the government at minimal cost. 

Golden business

In Europe open data is primarily regarded as an important catalyst for innovation. “We see it as the raw material for new information products and services, and thus as an incentive for business activity and economic growth,” says Marijn Janssen, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Professor of ICT and Governance at TU Delft's TPM Faculty. “This can produce golden business.“ ”According to the European Commission, the reuse of geo-information, statistical, meteorological and research data and other information can provide an economic boost worth billions of euros.“ ”At the same time, billions can be saved through the extensive digitisation of government services.“ ”Furthermore, it can help to achieve social objectives, such as improved traffic safety, higher employment, better air quality and less traffic disruption.”

Transparante overheid

Open data can also be used to make governments more transparent (open government). After all, government data becomes available to everyone, from citizens to scientists. Not only does this provide an improved insight into the government's actions; it also enables people to join in the thought process on decision making. Janssen: “In the US, for example, open data has made it possible to see how much money each hospital spends on emergency care. Citizens can join the debate on this, and thus have greater democratic input. In the Netherlands it is conceivable for a government agency like the Employee Insurance Agency (UWV) to open up data on its processes. People from outside the agency can then help to improve those processes, so that opportunities for improvement through the use of external expertise and citizen engagement can be better utilised.”


Although the possibilities of open data seem infinite, there are a number of snags associated with it. Janssen: “The essence of open data is that as many datasets as possible are opened up. We already have 6,000 datasets in the Netherlands (as of mid-July 2013), and the US has as many as 900,000. And this illustrates the problem, because: how can you utilise that data easily? Numerous legal, administrative, technical and organisational issues need to be resolved first. Legal issues concern matters such as conditions for reuse (licences) and responsibility for the quality, use and interpretation of the data. Administrative issues include the division of roles between the government and industry in the optimisation of open data. And then of course there is the technical complexity. Janssen: “Finding the right information in 900,000 datasets is like searching for needles in haystacks. How do you make this information accessible? And, once you have found what you're looking for, what is its value, what can and can't you link it to, and which technical protocol is it based on? All of these challenges, and others, have yet to be resolved.”

TU Delft and open data

Ideally, it should be possible to make open data easily available so that anyone can access it. However, in practice this requires a high level of education, knowledge of technical matters, knowledge of privacy and other legislation, and a lot of time.  TU Delft is attempting to break down these barriers in a number of ways, such as the EU-project ENGAGE, within which Anneke Zuiderwijk (Open Data Researcher) carries out her research. The aim of this project is to develop an open data infrastructure for providing and processing open data from governments and research agencies for researchers and citizens. Zuiderwijk: “ENGAGE should make it possible to automatically or manually load available datasets and search them easily, as well make all kinds of interconnections. For example, we are producing visualisation and analysis tools to enable people to interpret the information better. Because the envisioned structure is generic, it can be used for many different datasets for a variety of purposes. This is a unique approach, as other parties are focusing on the development of specific apps, such as precipitation radar and traffic information.” ENGAGE was launched in 2011 with participants from all over Europe and has a duration of three years.

Front runner: TU Delft

Open data has many administrative, technical and organisational implications. It is therefore a typical field of research for TU Delft's TPM Faculty, where problems are not only approached from a technical point of view, but also from social and administrative perspectives. A number of TU Delft students of open data have united to form an Open Data theme group. They study the same subject, but from different Master's programmes, such as policy and information architecture. TU Delft is a front runner in research on open data and has a unique multidisciplinary approach. Whereas many institutions focus on a single subject, such as transparency, TU Delft considers all the aspects from a socio-technical design perspective. The ultimate goal is to make open data accessible to everyone objectively, with room for individual interpretation.