Imagine an online one stop shop containing all of the Government’s publicly available data, providing visualizations of datasets that are crucial to transparency, such as the structural organization of every governmental department, and serving as a showcase of excellent applications made by citizens themselves using public data. In addition, this website contains additional information on the Government’s transparency program and enables citizens to comment upon and share information on the Government’s data and the ways it is used.
The newly launched Open Data Portal – data.gov.hr – should be such a website. Since it was so highly anticipated and the expectations were high, we have discussed first expert and user-side impressions with web designer Emanuel Blagonić and Miroslav Schlossberg of the Code for Croatia initiative and Open Zagreb group. Stating in advance that he had no expectations of data.gov.hr, Blagonić went on to say he was “surprised with how much was done. Of course opening data is commendable because it shows a move in the right direction so we shouldn’t be too critical. Considering the fact that public bodies used to resist the idea of open data so much that they would print Excel spreadsheets, scan them and then publish the scans in .pdf format just to discourage analysis, having downloadable data in Excel-readable format is a major breakthrough”.
Schlossberg has commented positively on dataset evaluation through the so-called “openness level”, with more stars (out of a possible five) denoting more open data. “The data.gov.hr portal currently has good grades according to the openness grading algorithm, with 26 three to five-star datasets, 69 two-star datasets, two one-star ones and two with no stars. According to research on the most important services and information to be available online, the most sought-after information is the one on finance and taxes, followed by those on health, rule of law and safety. Interestingly, data.gov.hr’s most prominent datasets include 44 datasets on social issues and 33 datasets on finances. I hope that the Government will listen to the citizens and further increase the number of financial datasets, as they are the most sought-after ones”.
What are the greatest challenges from both the citizens’ and the business sector’s perspectives, and what is the website’s greatest potential?
Schlossberg: The greatest challenge of the data.gov.hr portal is proactive data publishing in machine-readable formats. Although citizens will not see the immediate benefit in such mass-publishing of data, it is important precisely for the transparency of public bodies’ work. Data published on the data.gov.hr portal will be used mostly by programmers to develop new applications, services and visualizations, and by analysts to produce detailed analyses that will be useful to citizens.
Blagonić: I think the biggest challenge will be opening the data further, accessing all online databases via an API that would enable independent developers to create applications using the data. I am not referring only to graphic representations of the data but possibilities to use it in problem-solving, something that has already started with the e-Citizen system. I hope that the next course of action will be to make data available even more easily and in greater volume and to create links to the e-Citizen system, which could in turn serve as an entry point or authentication system to enable access to even more modern and advanced services.
Speaking of datasets, are there enough of them and what is especially missing?
Schlossberg: What is missing is important data on the hierarchical structure of public bodies in Croatia, their internal competency levels and employee numbers.
Blagonić: I don’t think there are enough datasets, but this is just the beginning. I believe that data visualizations could play a major role in popularizing access to data and raising citizens’ awareness on the importance of open data. For example, public debt seems like something that was hard to present visually, but that will be made easier, thanks to publicly available data. However, that is only the first step; bit by bit, with access via an API (which I hope is the plan for the future), we can expect more advanced services to be provided. I hope that this achievement will not be forgotten after the next elections because I consider it the obligation of every government to be highly transparent to all taxpayers.
Experts never seemed to be too keen on the e-Citizen portal – did things improve and what other upgrades to the portal are needed?
Schlossberg: The e-Citizen service in itself is doing a good job. However, not enough attention was paid to educating public servants who either accept or refuse documents granted through the service, leading to citizens becoming frustrated because of the work doubling needed to get a paper copy of a document to be brought to a counter somewhere. I happen to know that refusal to accept documents granted through the e-Citizen service is very common in many state offices, meaning there is still a long way to go.
Blagonić: E-Citizen is far from being an ideal system. There is much room for improvement. For example, gaining access to the system and using it need to be further simplified. Imagine a system that could enable you to request a new ID card without having to go to your police administration. That kind of benefit would be an incentive to citizens to use this system more compared to the usual practice. We are still far from that state, although I have heard off the record that some innovations in access are planned by the end of the year. Time will tell.
All things considered, can we speak of the state really getting closer to the citizens? If not, what’s missing and what should be done as the next step?
Schlossberg: The state administration seems to be turning entirely to developing e-Citizen, without paying enough attention to advancing internal procedures that will ensure that e-Citizen is accepted not only by citizens but by public services as well.
Blagonić: Opening data to citizens is not only a first step but an unprecedented advance not undertaken by any previous government, at least not in this scope. Before, you could get some data, but institutions usually made access harder, from the state bodies down to the local level. The government made the first step in the right direction, but for any of it to function and the society to become “open”, the same approach needs to be supported by cities and municipalities. Only then can we really speak of a ‘public state’ – the rest is just platitudes.