Business and Open Government / Open Data – An Advocacy Role for Business?

By Dieter Zinnbauer.

  • There is a much needed conversation on what stronger role business could and should take in the realm of open data
  • If business decides to put its powerful voice behind efforts to open up government data everyone could win
  •  More effective accountability and democratic empowerment via open government/open data would make a lasting contribution to the common good, put corporate political engagement to work and reaffirm the readiness of business to live up to its role as good corporate citizen

Approximate reading time: 4-5 minutes.

Two worlds apart?
Big excitement in the corporate world about big data is mirrored by big excitement in the NGO world about open data, the nearly world-wide move towards making data held by governments and the public sector more broadly available and usable. Big data is often described as the new oil, an essential commodity powering the economies of the near future. Quite similarly open data / and open government are celebrated as the new oil to lubricate and fuel democratic participation and accountability.

At first sight it looks like these two types of data-related euphoria should really complement each other and make business an enthusiastic proponent of open data. Yet, there still seems to be quite a substantial disconnect between these two spheres. The corporate world is primarily thinking about data in proprietary terms. The more exclusive, the more lucrative this asset class is going to be. The NGO world in contrast frames open data as a public good opportunity. The more freely available the more valuable it is – socially and politically. These contrasting world views are arguably one of the main reasons why interest by business to actively engage in the open government, open data movement appears to be rather tepid. At the same time, efforts by civil society to actively reach out to and proactively engage business are perhaps also not as enthusiastic or systematic as they could be.

Yet, I would suggest, that this narrative of an intrinsic antagonism between the business and open views of the new data era is a rather false and counter-productive one. It masks how interwoven both domains actually are, delays a much needed conversation on what stronger role business could and should take in the realm of open data.

Multiple inter-linkages
So here just a set of observations to help soften and shake up this rigid narrative and to provide a flavor of the things to come with regard to the potential engagement of business on open data issues.

  1. Public data has long been an important raw material for business. Commercial information brokers that build on, make more accessible and add further value to publicly available data have a long tradition (think phone books). And even in the early digital days before the enormous scale, scope and potential of open data had even appeared on the horizon the empirical picture was astounding: assessments for Europe, for example, put the overall commercial value of public sector information as input to economic activity at an amazing EUR 200 billion or 1.7% of total GDP fur the EU 27 (Vickery 2011).
  2. Businesses have been early protagonists in the open data world. It is rarely explicitly appreciated that business also has a very active history of pushing open data boundaries. As it turns out it was companies that pioneered some of the food labeling and related data initiatives that helped establish new expectations and regulatory standards about what types of data should be collected and made openly available for food items, since consumer trust was essential for rapidly industrializing food industries and a competitive advantage could be gained by first movers on that front. (Schudson 2015).
  3. Business are major users of open government mechanisms. It is companies –not journalist or citizen groups – that are by far the main user of freedom of information requests to help push more government held information into the open in the US (Kwoka 2016) – and turned these data trawls into lucrative trading opportunities (Gargano et al. 2016).

Where could this go next?
All this bodes well for business to take a much stronger interest in and help advance the open data/open government agenda.

What could be priority areas for such an engagement that are both critical to the open government idea and also provide some tangible benefits to business? Here just two examples:

  • Open contracting and open procurement: two groups of information that are central planks of many open data/open government reforms and that can help provide a level playing field for market access, push out unfair collusion rackets and more broadly provide a much broader set of valuable market intelligence when interacting with and devising bids for government clients, something that can be of particular importance when operating outside the home market;
  • Data on beneficial ownership of companies/property/land, as well as disclosure of assets/income/interests by senior government officials: a major push is underway by open government advocates to press for more data collection and public disclosure in these two areas, which are also essential for companies and what is often very resource-intensive due diligence/compliance in vetting new clients, identify conflicts of interest, guard against self-dealing etc.

If business decides to put its powerful voice behind such efforts to open up government data everyone could win. First such a corporate commitment would amount to a step change in the momentum for deepening such initiatives and expanding them to more countries, now that the lower-hanging fruits have been picked. Secondly, it would provide opportunities for business to lower costs for market intelligence, risk-management and compliance, while yielding indirect benefits in terms of fairer competition and lower entry thresholds. Third, the opening of these new data troves makes it possible to build new business models that curate, re-combine and apply advanced analytics to these datasets and offer related information services. This in turn would help to mitigate the chicken and egg problem for open public data ecologies where public authorities are hesitant to commit over a longer horizon and invest steadily in open data as long as they cannot see widespread use, while companies are reluctant to invest in the use of these data sources as long as they do not expect reliable maintenance and sustainable upkeep (Jetzek 2017). Finally, a stronger business commitment to supporting the open government / open data movement and the concomitant impact on more effective accountability and democratic empowerment would make a lasting contribution to the common good, put corporate political engagement to work for both company as well as societal interests and reaffirm the readiness of business to live up to its role as good corporate citizen.

What do you think?
So how to deepen this engagement? A good starting point is to unpack in a bit more detail where interests most strongly overlap, which types of open government and open data are most interesting for business. Any insights? What types of open data do you think are most useful for business? What is your company already doing in this area? I would love to hear your view on this, particularly if you are from the business world. You can take this 5min survey  to share your opinion – and I will report back on aggregate findings in a later post.

Dieter Zinnbauer works on emerging policy issues and innovation for Transparency International (TI) and is a current research fellow at the Governing Responsible Business Research Environment, CBS. He has held various post-doctorate research fellow positions on technology, governance and development issues. Prior to joining TI Dieter worked for more than 10 years in Asia, Africa, North America and Europe as policy analyst and research manager for a variety of organizations in the field of development, democratization and ICT policy, including with UNDP, UNDESA, and the European Commission.

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Pic by Jenny Downing, edited by BOS.