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Open data

December 6, 2010

The International Open Data Hackathon kicked off in Berlin and more than 50 other cities worldwide on Saturday. Developers around the world want to use public data to build better websites and mobile phone apps.

Two men on laptops
Developers at the Open Data Hackathon plan new appsImage: Saroja Coelho / nc / sa

On Saturday, software developers worldwide from Nairobi to Buenos Aires took part in the International Open Data Hackathon. Using public data, participants were tasked with building apps which they thought might improve life in their cities.

In Berlin, designers and developers gathered at Your Neighbours, a digital studio that has thrown its support behind the open data movement.

Edial Dekker, the studio's manager, and the hackathon participants share a binding belief: in order for a democratic society to function, citizens need to know what their government is doing. An essential part of that, they say, is open access to government data and information.

A man at a laptop
Participants are asked to build apps that would improve their citiesImage: Saroja Coelho / nc / sa

"It creates transparency. That means people get involved in decision-making, build stuff around government services that make things better," he said. Moreover, he says government data is a public good.

"When you're a citizen, you pay your taxes," Dekker explained. "You also pay for the registration of this data. It makes sense that you have access to it."

In Germany, raw data about schools, crime and health is often difficult to access. The government releases reports, but rarely makes the unadulterated source data available. The data which is free is often locked up in PDF or closed standard formats, which aren't possible to reuse.

Dekker says the hackathon is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that freeing the data is in everyone's interest.

"We try to make stuff and show the government this can be done if you open up the data," he said. "It's very common for people to sit behind a computer and create new apps and services just because they can and want to improve services."

Current open data applications largely from Canada, US, UK

That's exactly why Friedrich Lindenberg participated in the hackathon - he wants to use open data to help Germans better understand how their tax money is being spent.

"I was inspired by Wheredoesmymoneygo.org, which is a British site. It makes more transparent which part of my taxes go to which function of government," he explained.

There are many other examples of open government websites in the United States, like nextbus.com in San Francisco, which tells mobile phone users when the next bus will arrive. Just across the bay, oakland.crimespotting.org displays the city's crime data in an easy-to-understand format by overlaying it on digital maps. In Canada, OpenParliament.ca keeps track of how members of parliament vote on bills.

A person looking at a computer screen while holding his glassesa
Sifting through open data can be a daunting prospectImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

But Lindenberg also pointed out that open data isn't just helpful for big projects.

"There are a lot of little apps too, like where is the next public toilet?" he said. "Where's next cab stop? These small ones help improve everyday life."

Beyond visionary developers, some public officials also support this concept.

"I think it's a good idea," said Wolfgang Both, an economist with the City of Berlin's Department of Economics and Technology, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

"It gives more transparency and opens procedures to the people. It also helps the industry to develop new services. It's both a step to more freedom in our society and to more business and development in Europe."

Privacy concerns remain

But while many have applauded the government's willingness to open itself to the full weight of public scrutiny, others have concerns about individual privacy. Both explained that while open data is supposed to be anonymous, "from time to time, you are really able to connect open data with personal data."

A lock on top of a keyboard
Even with open data, there are still privacy concernsImage: Bilderbox

As a result, that's left Berlin officials in a tight spot - filtering all the data before it is released promises to be both expensive and time-consuming. Digital activists argue the files need to be freed quickly in order to preserve their value.

Meanwhile, Both launched a citywide survey to find out what data consumers in Berlin want access to first. Data on city planning, the environment and water quality topped the wish list.

But the open data movement isn't just about access. Once it is released, few people know what to do with raw data.

"Germans really make stuff very complicated," said Michael Kreil, a developer who is using budget data to create easy-to-understand visual guides that make this data easier to understand.

"Especially the data about government spending. It's 2,500 pages thick. No one can understand it. Even politicians come and say thank you for the visualization, because we don't understand it ourselves."

Author: Saroja Coelho, Berlin
Editor: Cyrus Farivar