Public administration produces scores of data, but most of it tends to stay closed in the archives. Now more and more of this information is being opened to the public, who are finding new, innovative ways of harnessing the data.

MOST people living in the Capital Region are likely to be familiar with Reittiopas.fi, a journey planner for Helsinki’s public transport. Yet the website is only one of the many ways of accessing the information behind the service. In 2009 the Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HSL) made its route and timetable data freely available for anyone to reuse. Currently about 40 mobile applications, created by the public, utilise the data, and an estimated sixth of the data’s use is through these applications.

Public transportation data is only one example of the different types of information that has been lately opened to the public, with more to follow, as various public offices will also open their data in the near future. A key driving force for this development have been open data enthusiasts, who promote the idea of releasing data produced by public officials. Many of them also use this data to develop new applications, arguing that exploitation of open data could yield significant benefits for the society overall.

The champions of open data typically give three reasons why releasing public administration’s data is beneficial: first, it increases transparency and people’s ability to participate in the democratic system; second, it fuels innovation and creation of new markets in the society; and finally, it improves efficiency between different public offices. To what extent the promise of open data holds true remains to be seen, but there are already some positive early signs.

Some public offices have already followed HSL’s example and opened parts of their data reserves: In 2012, the National Land Survey of Finland opened its topographical datasets and the Finnish Tax Administration made available its data on corporate tax. Early in 2013, the Finnish Meteorological Institute opened some of its weather data. Statistics Finland has also made some of its data accessible, with more to follow, and several smaller offices and museums have released some of their information (for example the Finnish National Gallery, which has released the metadata of its collections).

However, releasing data is only a first step, as the concrete benefits of such data are revealed only by its use. One way of seeing data is to think of it as a resource, whose full value will be determined by additional refining. What is therefore needed is different services and applications, created by the public, that exploit public data and offer user-friendly ways of making sense of what can be exceedingly vast amounts of information. Curious and skilful programmers and developers may come up with useful and engaging uses of data that public administration wouldn’t have thought of, for example by combining two or more separate datasets.

In December, Apps4Finland awarded the most creative and inspiring concepts and applications that used open data in 2013. Here are some examples of the winners, chosen from among over 100 contest participants.

Stormwind Simulator: A boating simulator that combines data from the National Land Survey, the Finnish Forest Research Institute and the Finnish Transport Agency to visualise over 30,000 square kilometres of the Finnish archipelago. The application aims to encourage learning navigation and improve safety at the sea.

Open Ahjo interface: An application programming interface (API) created by the city of Helsinki that automatically collects documents from Ahjo, the city’s electronic policy-making and case management platform. The interface gives citizens a new way of following the city’s decision-making processes.

Asthma self-care: An application that supports asthma patients’ self-care by featuring, for example, information on medication, local information such as the weather and air quality, and reminders for annual check-ups.

Vehicle inspection data: A service that allows users to examine data on vehicle inspections, compare the data on different car models and check online car sales websites for desired models. Its database is provided by A-Katsastus, the largest vehicle inspection company in Finland, and contains information on 830,000 inspections.

Beyond geekery

One way in which the benefits of open data are promoted is the competition Apps4Finland, which challenges developers to come up with innovative ways of exploiting open data. 2013 marked the fifth time the annual competition was organised, and over a hundred applications are submitted annually.

According to the organisers, the applications have become more and more thought-out and practical in the latest years, showing an increased understanding of what open data resources permit. “Previously we received more undeveloped ideas. Now many more concepts include a complete roadmap for turning them into fully realised applications,” says Sami Majaniemi from Apps4Finland.

Majaniemi says that Apps4Finland is also aiming to reach out to people who come from outside programming or data handling circles. Some competition challenges require expertise in several fields, which means that you may need more than just code-savvy geeks to reach useful solutions. “For example, some competing works in 2013 that related to location data required collaboration between IT and geoscience experts,” Majaniemi says.

The organisers also aim to develop Apps4Finland towards functioning as a bridge that connects societal problems with people with the required skills and tools to find solutions to them. This, in turn, would contribute to the development of a wider ecosystem around open data. Such ecosystem could see data brokers, analysts and software developers, among other actors, making use of open data for different applications and establishing themselves between data suppliers and end users.

When the National Land Survey of Finland began releasing its data in 2012, they saw a distribution network appear very soon. “It definitely seems that there is a community forming around our data,” says Kari-Pekka Karlsson from the National Land Survey of Finland. “Some of the distributors of our data had been its retailers also before, when we offered it as a paid-for product, but some are entirely new.”

Benefits and potential risks

The government has now committed to the concept of open data, but the notion did face a degree of resistance initially, and some worries over the idea are still heard from time to time. The main points of concern relate to privacy and security – for example, could a malicious party take some seemingly harmless data and find unexpected and harmful ways of using it?

Yet the types of data that have so far been released had been available also before, albeit in another, less accessible format, and possibly for a fee. If someone with hostile intentions wanted to access such information, they could have done so already before. “Holding on to such fears as a reason not to move forward with releasing more data is more likely to obstruct the good guys, who could use the data to do something useful and beneficial, than to stop the bad guys,” says Majaniemi. “The pros and cons of releasing data should be weighed against each other in the case of every data type.”

One category of information where questions of privacy are particularly relevant is health data. Majaniemi notes, however, that ongoing, open discussion is needed also because the conception of personal privacy is changing, and information that is now generally considered as private may be perceived differently in the near future.

Some argue that giving the public – especially programmers and developers – unrestrained access to data could also yield commercial benefits, or at least give support to existing services that could utilize newly released data. Yet it is too early to determine the extent to which open data can be monetized, as thriving commercial applications are few so far. Karlsson points out, however, that even though the National Land Survey’s data is only used by a handful of commercial applications, the data’s use went up tenfold when it was made available for free. From the point of view of dissemination, its release has thus been a great success.

The internet is often described as a disruptive force, and this certainly holds true in the case of public data: information that used to be impossible (or impossibly expensive) to be made accessible to the public can now be released with relatively few resources. What the future holds depends largely on the enthusiasm of data activists to keep looking for new, creative ways of employing data, but it seems safe to say that the most compelling and beneficial uses of open data are still ahead of us.

Teemu Henriksson