“Once politicians see open data has an economic value it will be easier to argue the case for open data,” says Walter Palmetshofer of the Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland.
The drive for open data – non-personal data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone – has often lacked teeth, at least as far as some European governments are concerned. An economic incisor or two would go a long way to making public sector decision makers sit up and take a bit more notice, especially in Germany.
Palmetshofer, who is one of a team of 17 people working for OKF Deutschland in Berlin, admits that Germany has been surprisingly slow in getting its open data house in order. It has, he says, “lacked ambition”.
Germany has still not joined up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and was the last of the G8 countries to submit a plan for the Open Data Charter. But are there any signs of change in the Bundestag?
“It’s a long process,” says Palmetshofer. “Not being part of the OGP is a problem but Germany has taken another route. Data privacy is a cultural thing in Germany and a question for the leadership but there has been some progress.”
Germany has in fact made a commitment of sorts through the Public Community Partnership and is currently going through the motions of an open data consultation. But while nationally open data initiatives are taking small and tentative steps, in Berlin the story is a little different.
“Berlin is more advanced as a city than Germany as a country,” adds Palmetshofer.
The OKF is at the heart of Berlin’s open data evolution, developing tools, providing training courses for local government officials and using its coding skills to help organisations build open data services. It has also worked with startup incubators and has developed projects such as Jugend Hackt, or Youth Hacked to promote open data coding to a new generation of developers.
“Our goal is to promote knowledge through the use of open data, focusing on open government, transparency and accountability,” adds Palmetshofer. “We work in civic tech to promote democracy and citizen engagement with local government, building tools around the data and using our legal expertise.”
The OKF’s freedom of information portal FragDenStaat is the culmination of its collective skills, providing German citizens with a tool to access government-held records and data. In April this year the system was tested when Simon Schräder, a 17 year old student from Munster made an unsuccessful request to see the questions in his forthcoming Abitur tests. It was, if nothing else, great publicity for the OKF’s work and website.
The OKF has come a long way in a short space of time.
“In the early days OKF got accused by the German government of violating intellectual property because OKF wanted to crowdsource the list of data-sets from the city of Berlin which could and should be opened up as open data to the public,” says Palmetshofer.
It was an experience where OKF was grateful for its in-house legal expertise. The ability to fight its corner and the corner of Berlin’s citizens has stood it in good stead and formed the basis of a batch of new tools, services and events to educate and support the community. As well as FragDenStaat, Palmetshofer cites a number of other project examples that OKF is using to help improve skills and knowledge both locally and nationally. Codefor.de for example, is a project aimed at fostering innovation, civic tech and transparency in Germany.
“At its core lies a community program with more than 300 volunteer developers, designers and journalists in 20 cities that are organised in so-called Open Knowledge Labs,” adds Palmetshofer. “They meet on a regular basis to tackle specific challenges of their city and build close ties to the local government officials and institutions.”
So even if progress has been slow in government, are people starting to see the value of open data services?
“There are some areas such as traffic and relocation services where you can find out about a new area in terms of schools, noise levels and environment that are easily understood. Other cases, where the data is more complex and to do with transparency and accountability, are more difficult to explain.”
The OKF’s next plan is to open a company register in Germany to improve business transparency, certainly in terms of ownership and spending. OpenBudgets and OpenParliament are also on the cards to improve visibility of government spending and decision making. It’s a tough sell but Palmetshofer is hopeful.
Encouragingly he is also seeing a growth in supporters within government. He puts this down to the development of the economic argument as well as the OFK’s education and training. Money talks but progress will he believes remain slow, at least for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile the OKF’s work in Berlin is clearly achieving results. While Germany will eventually open up, says Palmetshofer, it seems that the capital will lead the way.