Harnessing Collective Intelligence with Open Data

Blog by Cecilia Emilsson, OECD Digital Government and Data Unit, Public Governance Directorate, OECD

Open Data has a big impact on our lives. Imagine your daily routine without being able to use apps like CityMapper for the smartest commuting route, or make informed food purchases with platforms like Open Food Facts. The release of air quality data equips us with new tools to fight climate change. Dissecting open data on public spending means we can even hold our governments to account.

Since the mid-2000s, governments across the world have embraced Open Government Data (OGD) policies and developed central/federal portals for open data. The motivation, in most cases, has been to open up government apparatus for scrutiny and to boost economic growth by allowing anyone to innovate with public sector data. New communities like GovTech and RegTech, together with the accelerating use of data-intensive technologies, further stress the relevance of open data for a wide range of actors.

Still, the release of open data does not guarantee an open government, nor a government that has its data under control.

The value of open data lies in its reuse. Therefore, the more difficult it is to re-use the data (think lack of easy discovery, proprietary formats or broken web links), the more value is lost. When governments deliver open data initiatives merely to convince the public of its transparency or digital maturity – without ensuring that the data published is actually usable and re-usable – the value of such initiatives becomes diluted. The tendency to think open data is about making data available for public access in a traditional sense erodes its full potential and value.

When designing, implementing or assessing open data policies based on these dilemmas, we should reflect on the fundamentals of why we are doing what we are doing. Why do we actually want citizens, businesses, journalists and other actors to use government data?

Apart from the important transparency aspect. Theories support the rationale of sharing and opening government data simply because the best ideas don’t always come from expert individuals, but from groups of diverse people collaborating around common goals. As described by James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, ‘intelligent groups’[1] often outperform expert individuals in making smart decisions. For collective intelligence, a group should harness individuals’ intelligences and provide a platform for feedback where individuals have access to the others’ ideas. The more diverse groups are, the more likely they are to be intelligent – as the author states “groups that are too much alike find it harder to keep learning, because each member is bringing less and less new information to the table”.

The theory of collective intelligence highlights the importance of stakeholder engagement, collaborative platforms and diversity in the design and implementation of open data initiatives.

The value of events that centre on open data re-use, including hackathons, lies in this premise. As identified in the OECD Policy Paper Open, Useful, Re-usable data (OURdata) Index: 2019, the transformation of central/federal open data portals into user-driven and collaborative digital spaces may also strengthen open data policies.On such platforms, users can easily share ideas and data between themselves, thus enhancing our collective wisdom and innovation capacities.Governments in OECD countries are increasingly getting to grips with this idea.  

In terms of diversity, there are several examples of how OECD countries are working on ensuring that different groups of society participate in the open data community. Both Canada and New Zealand, for instance, have made significant efforts to include the perspectives of indigenous communities in the design and delivery of open data initiatives. The government of Korea, together with civil society organisations, arranged open data events that explicitly targeted female entrepreneurs. 

With a focus on strengthening data governance, stakeholder engagement, platforms for collaboration (both physical and virtual), and diversity, the future of open government data policies seem bright. Yet, right now, several challenges lies ahead.

The OECD Digital Government and Data Unit work continuously to track, analyse and report on these developments to support countries in deriving sustainable value from open data policies.  


[1] There are examples of groups that do not act intelligent. An example of such a ‘group’ is the financial market during and preceding the 2008 financial crisis.

Further reading:
OECD work on Open Government Data
Open, Useful and Re-usable data (OURdata) Index: 2019 – Policy Paper>
OECD Recommendation on Digital Government Strategies

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