Government agencies should be harnessed as drivers of the information industry

The European Union has for a long time been striving to boost the re-use of government information, as it promotes the development of the information and knowledge society. This offers Finland a major opportunity, which should not be overlooked.

An increasing volume of open data becomes available for easier use in society. This is promoted, for example, by the objectives of Prime Minister Antti Rinne’s Government Programme and the requirements the Information Management Act sets for the quality criteria for information and the interfaces enabling machine readability.

However, the idea of making open data available in a centralised manner is not a new one. The Finnish portal has for several years provided information on data opened from public authorities’ datasets, for example.

Public authorities’ datasets are not sufficiently well-known

In its audit report Open information and utilisation of government information, published at the beginning of September, the National Audit Office of Finland pointed out that full-scale utilisation of public authorities’ datasets is hampered by the fact that they are not sufficiently well-known. In an ideal situation, public authorities, companies and other organisations as well as citizens can easily keep up to date of where different government information is available, on what conditions, in what way technically, and as from when.

Datasets should be opened in a coordinated manner as part of the overall data in a well-planned operating environment. This requires routines, for example, for compiling sufficiently up-to-date information on public authorities’ datasets, their contents, the status of their opening and related plans, and similar issues essential for the re-use of information.

The opening of datasets would also benefit society financially. According to a survey by the European Commission in 2011, the direct financial benefits of the re-use of information would amount to up to EUR 40 billion within the EU, which would mean almost EUR 700 million in Finland. The EU has for several years strived to promote a more active use of government data.

Providing information 24/7 is expensive

A description of data is valuable, even if the data is not open, if it is possible to access the data for a charge – either as such or in a modified form. Certain authorities have developed information services where the user is provided not only with open data but, for a charge, also with other information the disclosure of which is not prevented by any regulations.

It is important to be able to predict the availability of information if you are planning new services or giving service promises or if you want to streamline operations. The continuity of public authorities’ information supply depends on their duties, which can change. It is possible to provide information on a 24/7 basis, but it is expensive.

Data integrity and quality are essential to the usability of information. They are ensured mainly by controls targeted at information systems. Public authorities are responsible for seeing to the quality of their information when performing their duties. To promote trust in government information, the authority responsible for the description of a group of datasets could also verify the authenticity of the datasets when updating the descriptions of them.

The development and cheaper introduction of artificial intelligence, scalable cloud services and other technologies make it necessary to enhance data protection and security. New data can be used as a filter for data already in use, which increases the risk of disclosure of confidential data. To be able to respond to this risk, we need new kinds of methods to prepare information containing personal data, for example, for opening. If it is sufficient in view of usability that the data opened retains a certain level of reliability, the raw data does not have to correspond fully to the open data.

An organised society cannot function without datasets

Central government’s information assets are irreplaceable, which makes them more significant. An organised society cannot function without datasets. Most public authorities do knowledge work, which means obtaining, processing, generating and saving information. The value of datasets can be considered in light of the fact that, in 2018, central government employed about 75,000 people, whose salary expenses totalled almost EUR 4.5 billion.

Making government data available to society in a controlled manner benefits the national economy, society and the development of public administration. Examples of concrete benefits are new or better services, better customer service, new business, image benefits, a more solid foundation for decision-making, healthier competition, prevention of detrimental phenomena, and support for research.

As an owner of significant datasets, the state holds a special position and has the opportunity to serve as a forerunner. Solutions that are made workable in the EU, which sets high requirements for data protection and security, promote the information industry and Finland’s competitiveness in it within the entire EU.

Author: Matti Mattila