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[BigDataSur] Pre- and post-pandemic open data: People expect, want, use data more than data custodians expect

by Miren Gutiérrez & Marina Landa (Universidad de Deusto)

What is the relevance of open data for ordinary people? Despite the terrible loss of life and increased social divides, COVID-19 has been an opportunity to explore the role of data in people’s lives at the local level here, in Euskadi (Basque Country in Basque).

To do that, Marina and I relied on participant observation of a three-day workshop, interviews with fifteen experts and open data reusers, and an analysis of 78 citizen projects that employ open data submitted to the Open Data Euskadi awards (an open competition) in 2015, 2018, and 2020. Data collection was conducted before the first wave and after the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, from November 27, 2019, to February 17, 2021, allowing us to make comparisons.

The questions we were asking were: “What do minders, reusers of, and experts on open data say about how open data should be?” “What does an analysis of 78 cases of re-utilization of open data from the Basque facility say about open data?” And “are there any disparities between what the data collected say before and after the COVID-19 pandemic struck Euskadi?” We look at each of these questions from the perspective of the transparency-participation-collaboration paradigm for open government.

The two main results were somehow surprising. Basically, people expect, want, and use open data more than the custodians of open data vaults expect or plan for. And although the pandemic has seen an increased interest in data and data visualizations, this interest preceded COVID-19.

We find that citizens are pushing for what we have called actionable open data, or data embedding the attributes that make them useful and usable. This includes integrating data literacy and citizens’ inputs and forming interdisciplinaryteams of people inside and outside the government.

The level of open data re-utilization, ten years after the launch of the Basque Government’s open data platform, was low when the pandemic struck. Unexpectedly, many people were captivated by Open Data Euskadi, and its daily data updates were the center of public debate. The discrepancies found in the datasets offered by the Spanish state’s Ministry of Health and Osakidetza –the independent Basque health system— resulted in heated debates on social media platforms.

Suddenly, infographics and charts were lingua franca; the collective motto during the confinement has been “let’s flatten the curve.” People were demanding more and better open data and publishing their own curves. In June, dozens of ordinary people and experts signed a manifesto in favor of “accessible public data for the construction of shared knowledge in times of the global pandemic.” The declaration argued that scientists, journalists, and citizens could help decision-makers if disaggregated data were accessible “in a structured, open, clearly linked, and a contextualized way.”

Except for some authors in critical data and urban studies, scholarship’s emphasis so far has been on top-down approaches to datafication. Most efforts to further the idea of open data participation and collaboration “are driven by traditional top-down administrative commands or directives practically without any input from members of the civil society,” says for example Kassen. Instead, we took a bottom-up approach to explore the role of open data in the lives of people.

Some of the exciting ideas emerging from this analysis include:

  • The analysis reveals tensions between a) the real conditions in which open data supporters within the administration work and the expectations and needs generated by the pandemic; b) the perceptions of a lack of curiosity on the part of citizens and the real interest exposed by the projects submitted to the Open Data awards; and c) the data literacy of people and the challenges of data agency.
  • Open data enthusiasts in the administration complain about lack of a) support, knowledge, or interest from politicians making decisions at the top; b) cooperation from other departments that oversee data collection; c) standardized systems; and d) mechanisms to integrate citizens’ inputs.
  • Data openers are not users, and discrepancies about what data are needed may emerge. “We do liberate open data in massive amounts, but we need civic knowledge to open what is needed,” said a civil servant.
  • Our analysis of the submissions to the Open Data awards supports the notion that citizens do not find everything they need in the open data vaults: only 15 of the 78 initiatives examined (19.2 percent) rely just on Open Data Euskadi’s datasets. And 28 of the 78 projects (35.9 percent) propose, explicitly or implicitly, that Open Data Euskadi offer new datasets to develop their idea.
  • Pandemic open data were offered in a non-systematic manner initially, and that it took some time before the Open Data Euskadi updates became regular. But some problems continued: the same information was not always available, the criteria were changed, and some of the data offered as authenticated previously were later modified, making comparisons impossible. Data journalists and activists –feeding maps and search engines with hospital occupation, nursing homes, and intensive care unit data in quasi real-time— had to make “continuous adjustments to the datasets” and even remove entire charts because a data type was no longer supplied. But the data visualization section was a favorite with their publics, “so we understand that it has helped people, or at least offered a better understanding of the pandemic.”
  • The perception that there is “more participation offers than (citizen) demand” is misplaced. 61 of the 78 initiatives were submitted by individuals, most of them with social purposes and not by for-profits or institutions for commercial purposes.
  • Not all the projects presented in 2020 were related to the pandemic. Only ten of the 33 ideas were explicitly proposed to address the situation provoked by COVID-19, and another two mentioned the pandemic as a non-essential variable.


Do not miss Gutierrez, M. and Landa, M. 2021. “From Available to Actionable Data: An Exploration of Expert and Reuser Views on Open Data.” Journal of Urban Technology (accepted on May 27, 2021).