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Summer of Open Data

Panel #6

Subnational Data, Sustainability, and Skills Development

Posted on 26th of August 2020 by Andrew Zahuranec

Panel #6
Panel #6

Panelists, clockwise from top left: Stefaan Verhulst (The GovLab); Rhiannan Price (Maxar Technologies); Stephen Chacha (Tanzania Data Lab); and Theo Blackwell (London, UK)

The Summer of Open Data is a three-month project spearheaded by the Open Data Policy Lab (an initiative of The GovLab with support from Microsoft) in partnership with the Digital Trade & Data Governance Hub, Open Data Institute, the Open Data Charter, and BrightHive. Each week, we speak with data experts in local and regional governments, national statistical agencies, international bodies, and private companies to advance our understanding of how to establish a vision of open data focused on collaboration, responsibility, and purpose.

The Panel

Moderated by The GovLab’s Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer Stefaan Verhulst, the cross-cutting panel featured:

In a 45-minute conversation, Stefaan and the panelists spoke on a variety of issues, including the state of subnational data, developing data collaboratives at local and community level, promoting sustainability of data projects, advocating for open data’s value, and developing appropriate data skills.

The full conversation, as well as a brief overview of highlights, is below:


Sharing Subnational Assets

The first topic discussed by the panelists was the evolving use and reuse of data on the subnational level.

As Stefaan noted, for much of the history of the open data movement, organizations focused their efforts on opening nationwide datasets. This focus inspired greater transparency on certain issues, but failed to capture the full scope of public needs. In most areas, access to subnational datasets remains inaccessible.

Theo Blackwell acknowledged these issues and London’s attempts to address them. Since it began in 2010, London’s open data platform has grown substantially in size and functionality, expanding from a list of datasets to a series of applications useful to policymakers, academics, and business.

Still, more progress could be made. Theo talked about how London could augment its existing resources with siloed datasets.

“It became clear that open [government] data alone does not cover the entire universe of what we do,” said Blackwell, speaking on the growing demand for data. “What we need is the universe of data, data from closed sources as well […] That’s the kind of development we’re focusing on, the merging of open and closed data to help the city.”

These remarks resonated for Rhiannan Price who urged data practitioners not to think of openness as a binary, but a spectrum with many permutations related to data licensing and access. Adopting this mindset, she argued, was essential for public servants who wanted to make use of private-sector data.

“The private sector is a really diverse place. We as a satellite imagery provider sit in a specific part of that ecosystem but other data providers are in different positions. […] For each organization, you have to recognize that they’re in a different place in the journey toward open data and their ability to support it.”

Rhiannan spoke about how Maxar worked with the OpenStreetMap community and the value that satellite data could provide to pandemic response.

Stephen Chacha related these concepts to the importance of understanding data skills. In Kenya and Tanzania, different organizations had differing levels of data readiness. Some areas, he noted, had officials who stored information on paper and lacked the skills needed to develop meaningful insights from it.

Much like Price, Stephen tried to approach organizations with an awareness of context.

“Our approach has been through supporting and facilitating data assessments at the subnational level and complimenting that with the actual process of building a subnational data roadmap that brings together the citizens, the local authorities, the community-based organizations operating at the subnational level, non-governmental organizations, and private-sector entities.”

In each of their remarks, the participants additionally noted the effect COVID had on increasing demand for data. For Blackwell, the crisis put in stark relief the need to develop real-time data analysis capacity while Price and Chacha spoke about trying to better coordinate with other institutions and stakeholders.


Though the COVID-19 pandemic provided an immediate demand for data, it was unclear whether this interest would remain indefinitely.

To maintain sustainability in the long term, Stephen Chacha and his organization worked with local government agencies, seeking to connect directly with their leaders to emphasize the value of data and data stewards, responsible data leaders who seek new ways to create public value from cross-sector data collaboration.

“We are lucky in that we had a district executive director [a budget holder at the district level] who was really a data steward who understood the way that data could make a difference in his district,” said Stephen. “We managed to build a community of other stewards around him.”

For the private sector, sustainability depended on finding where the public interest and business interests intersect. Rhiannan Price spoke about how her company navigated this space.

“When I talk about [opening private-sector datasets], I like to talk about ‘sponsoring’ open data where you bring donors, funders together who have goals around having open data results […] who can help foster that with the private sector. That’s also important. That also speaks to the business case and how it becomes sustainable when, in some cases, businesses are foregoing business opportunities.”

Compared to organizations that use data to support their operations but don’t sell it, firms whose business model is based around selling access to data can face challenges to building internal support for data collaboration.

Open Data Advocacy and Skills Development

Unlike the other participants, Theo Blackwell was often in a position where he needed to advocate for the value of open data. Asked by Stefaan on how he encouraged open data development, Blackwell spoke about how the structure of the city’s open data infrastructure allowed it to better operate.

Instead of hosting a city-wide platform, the city hall oversaw a central repository of metadata supported by 32 independent data authorities. As a hub, the city hall could focus on standards and rules and the questions people want answers to.

“Think of it like an old library index card from a university library. [The approach] essentially enables peer-to-peer data sharing in a much less frictionless way. It reduces the amount of resources you need to use data and it increases the value [of the data] over time.”

Amid the ongoing pandemic, London was seeing a real test of its data that would lead to value insights. The city could see which needs it anticipated and failed to anticipate, gaining a real insight into vulnerabilities. This information would let the city better plan and allocate resources for the future.

Stefaan pressed on these points. Noting The GovLab’s work fostering the creation of data stewards and London’s emphasis on answering specific questions, he asked whether there was a need for a greater investment in skills training.

Blackwell answered yes but noted the need to bring in subject-matter experts who could help develop meaningful questions.

“The framing of a data question is quite the art and sometimes, with even big challenges, small slivers of questions can make the biggest difference. You only get that by drawing out the expertise of the different people in the room. The investment in processes from the digital world needs to be highly aligned there.”

The GovLab has made similar findings in The 100 Questions Initiative, which relies on data and subject-matter experts to define meaningful questions.

Major Takeaways

At the conclusion of the discussion, the panelists had a moment to reflect on what they considered the most pressing need to realize the third wave of open data.

Stephen Chacha argued there was an immediate need to develop clear data protection policies and procedures to facilitate data sharing. In his experience, the biggest barrier to data reuse was uncertainty.

“Telecom operators are waiting to share their data but they aren’t sure what datasets are okay to share and which are not okay to share,” Stephan argued. “And if they end up sharing the ones that are not okay to share […] what will happen to them? They want to minimize their risk as well.”

Rhiannan Price spoke on the need to develop expertise among data stewards. In her view, the ideal responsible data leader had a background in the public and private sector, one that could meaningfully bridge the cultures between government and business. She also emphasized the need to empower data stewards to do their work and to proactively reach out to others.

For Theo Blackwell, the biggest priority was data collaboration. In a city of nine million people and many data holders, the city needed to engage with them to answer pressing public questions.

“Data collaboration is fundamental. So what we are trying to do is create a platform and a culture of data sharing and driving that forward by a number of really important use cases that everyone, including private sector data holders can agree on […] and spinning up use cases from there.”

Next Panel

The Summer of Open Data will continue these conversations in the weeks and months to come. As indicated in our schedule, the next panel will bring together:

  • Rudi BorrmanOpen Government Partnership Deputy Director of OGP Local;
  • Tyler Kleykamp, State Chief Data Officers Network Director; and
  • Kara Selke, StreetLight Data Vice President of Commercial Development and Privacy.

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