[Translate to English:] Rolltreppen in einer U-Bahn-Station. Der Blick richtet sich an die Decke wo in bunten Farben Verbindunsbalken zwischen der rechten und linken Wand zu sehen sind.

Communities want to make more open data available, but see obstacles

A growing number of Germany’s cities and towns are already making open data available to the public. Together with Difu, the German institute for urban affairs, we conducted a survey to identify which opportunities and challenges German communities associate with open data.

For many cities and towns, open administrative data, such as local-level statistics or data relating to public transportation or the environment, are a relatively new area of activity. Yet whether they are used for strategic decision making in public administration or for artificial intelligence (AI), open data – i.e. data that can be freely used, reused or distributed – are an important building block in efforts to digitalize public administration. Over 90 percent of the local-level data experts surveyed say they are in favor of policies that provide greater access to data. At the same time, they see a number of obstacles to achieving that goal. Limited personnel and the lack of a legal mandate are the most common reasons given for why open data are still not available. The fear that data will be misused and privacy concerns are also considerations preventing communities from making data generally accessible. Those are the key findings from a survey we carried out together with Difu, the German institute for urban affairs, on the availability of open data. Over 200 German communities with more than 10,000 inhabitants participated in the survey. 

As the findings also show, in addition to lacking the required resources or specialized expertise, communities have difficulty publishing data since the processes and procedures used by public administrators have only been standardized or digitalized to a limited extent. Approximately half of the data experts see advantages, especially during the current corona pandemic, in making data generally available, for example in hazardous situations. Above all, experts feel that using open data to inform the public and facilitate an exchange between various authorities are the primary benefits. However, they see little advantage for developing innovative business areas.

Benefit for larger communities: professional data management

Approximately one-third of the communities surveyed already make data freely available, and of those who have not done so, one-quarter have taken steps that will allow them to publish open data in the future. Professional data management is a crucial prerequisite for these efforts and is often what makes data-driven management of local-level projects and programs possible in the first place. More than half of the cities and towns surveyed have already established processes, structures and responsibilities for data management. Yet while this is true of over 90 percent of major cities (more than 100,000 inhabitants), it applies to less than half of the smaller towns (fewer than 20,000 inhabitants). Only one in six has appointed a direct contact person for the topic of open data – a step small towns are also less likely to have taken.

An important milestone on the path to open data is having access to technical infrastructure, say representatives of almost three-quarters of the communities surveyed. Other key catalysts are having clear legal and regulatory guidelines in place on the federal or state level, such as transparency laws, and having passed a resolution for providing open data at the local level. 

Targeted support for smaller communities

Many local-level data experts would like to make data openly available – an idea that is less prevalent in their communities, however. Practical handbooks and an interregional data portal would make it easier to provide access to open data, especially for smaller cities and towns unable to build and maintain their own technical infrastructure.

"The corona pandemic will put a significant strain on local-level finances. That is why smaller, less fiscally robust communities in particular need financial support for implementing their digitalization plans, including the use of open data".

Brigitte Mohn, Member of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board

Communities need a secure legal foundation if they are to allow their data to be accessed openly. The transposition of the EU’s directive on the reuse of public sector information (PSI Directive) into national law can serve as a binding framework for all of Germany. As part of the transposition process, crucial steps can be taken until July 2021 to determine which data must also be published on the local level. Making data openly available will require public administrators to adopt a new mindset: “Processes and structures should focus more on users’ needs, barriers between individual departments should be reduced,” says Kirsten Witte, expert for community affairs at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. The current situation shows that innovative solutions based on open data can play a valuable role in providing digital services to the public.