A Transparent City

Imagine a city where public decision-making is easy for all to follow and comment on using any digital channel. A solution to this challenge is being sought in Helsinki, which has long been working to unlock the data reserves related to municipal decision-making.

In September 2013, more than 1,000 sets of data had been published in the Helsinki region as open data. Open data is meant for anyone to use as they wish, and it is in a form that is easily readable by computer software. Available are statistics, forecasts, geographical information, public transport timetables, historical aerial images, snow-plough monitoring data and much more.

Open data is used in many different online and mobile applications, as well as in visualisations and analyses. The best-known open data applications are different mobile applications that make public transport easier to use. A fine example of an application that uses open data is Blindsquare, which helps visually-impaired people to navigate in the city using their smartphone.

In Helsinki, one of the most important data openings this year has been an interface to the city’s decision-making data, which contains information on the decisions that the city makes – in machine-readable form. This article focuses on the opportunities presented by the city’s decision-making data and expectations for the future. The first part will shed light on the background to the opening of data in the Helsinki region, and will particularly provide information on the recent history of the unlocking of data to promote transparency.

A pioneer of open data

In 2009, a vision was created under the leadership of the City of Helsinki Urban Facts – a vision in which public data reserves would be produced and published as open data in machine-readable form for the free use of everyone. The vision was called Helsinki Region Infoshare (HRI). The projectisation of HRI was prepared through the co-operation of Forum Virium Helsinki and the municipalities in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area – Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen. The project’s pilot phase began in summer 2010. This was the first major project in Finland with regard to open data, and the purpose was to produce operating models and good practices also for the use of others interested in opening up data.

In 2010, Finland was in the early stages in terms of opening data. As a concept, open data was familiar to a handful of people active in the field, but in public administration the idea was still new, with the exception of a few experiments. In HRI, the aim was to open up data as quickly as possible, and to offer a platform for finding this data, for example through open data catalogues or web services familiar in the UK and USA.

In March 2011, the first version of the www.hri.fi online service was published, through which not only hundreds of data sets were available, but also machine-readable interfaces to library collection catalogue data and public transport data. HRI had made the decision to promote the opening not only of statistical information but also any other type of public data. Soon the opening of data promoting the transparency of administration would also be underway.

Opening up the municipal economy

Open data provides many benefits. Many wish for new business and innovations to be created on the basis of such data. The streamlining of administration and co-operation between authorities is also seen as important, and here open data would appear to have a lot to offer. In the opinion of some, one of the key benefits of open data is the effect of promoting transparency in society and, as a result, civic participation and democracy.

Transparency in the public sector can be increased in many ways. In addition to statistical information, in the world of open data, one of the key developments increasing transparency in administration has been the publishing of financial statement information, budgets and even individual transactions as open data.

In May 2011, a meeting of the budget chiefs of the municipalities in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area was convened at Vantaa’s request, in order to listen to a presentation by HRI about open financial data. The presentation focused, in particular, on some examples of British financial data from data.gov.uk, and the applications that make use of them, such as Openspending.org or Wheredoesmymoneygo.org. At the meeting, a consensus was reached that, with the assistance of HRI, the financial statement data of the Helsinki Metropolitan Area could be opened every year based on the British model.

The OpenSpending online tool is here used to visualize the City of Helsinki expenditures in 2009–2011.

Helsinki was first to open its financial statement data in December 2011 and soon after Vantaa followed suit at an even more detailed level than Helsinki. At present, open financial statement data is available from all municipalities in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, and it will be interesting to see how different parties will apply it in future. For many in Finland, it is still a surprise that such exact data about municipal finances is already available in machine-readable form, and thus diversely applicable and analysable with a variety of software.

Helsinki’s and Vantaa’s financial statement information can be browsed using the Openspending application, which helps people to concretely understand how much money is needed annually for the different functions of a specific school or day-care centre, for example. In Helsinki, open financial data has been utilised, for example, in open budgeting for the planning of the Central Library. In this case, the library’s customers were given the chance to determine how a specific portion of the future library’s budget should be used.

In Vantaa, open financial statement data has been found very useful also within the city administration, as it can be analysed using new tools, which offer, for example, an easier way than before to understand the operations of your own department. Vantaa’s financial data has been used to make a computer game, in which the player’s job is to knock down towers illustrating Vantaa’s budget, and thereby learn to understand the scale of the budget of the City of Vantaa in an amusing way!

Published financial data as such is not sufficient, but should work together with other data.

In Finland, opening up and utilising open financial data is still in its infancy. In order for it to be useful for citizens and, for example, journalists, its application needs new tools that would present data better in context. Media, for instance, would benefit from an application that would automatically produce a visualisation of any news item related to public services and their financing.

As a result of the process of opening up financial data, we have noticed that published financial data as such is not sufficient, but should work together with other data describing public sector activity in order to form a better overall picture.

What could we achieve by analysing on a map financial data broken down to the level of city service points; statistical data on the location and use of the service points; population statistics by district; and by adding information about the city decision-making and its history? In this way, public-sector work and the planning of municipal services would become easier to grasp, not only for residents but also for officials and decision-makers themselves.

Discussion on vegetarian food inspires a council video interface

In February 2010, a YouTube user published a video called Helsinki City Council: Vegetarian Food Day. A weekly vegetarian food day suggested for schools caused a lively, at times emotional discussion in the council, and the debate was successfully edited into a speeded-up version in the video in question. The video attracted more than 100,000 views. It inspired the city to open an interface to video recordings of City Council meetings, so that videos of the proposals of councillors would be technically easier to compile and show online.

The first version of the Council Video Interface, or open.helsinkikanava.fi, was published back in the summer of 2010. However, it was ahead of its time in the sense that there was, at start, very little understanding about how to properly utilise the opportunities it presented. The story goes that one media house said: “We don’t understand anything about interfaces like this – do you have video tapes to give us?” This comment is understandable. In many media houses, technological expertise such as the application of data is still a challenge, even though skills have improved.

In skilled hands, a few hours’ coding work with the interface can result, for example, in an application that visualises the councillors who have the most often exceeded their allotted speaking time. This light-hearted application, among others, was coded at the Wärk:fest makers’ fair in 2012.

The council video interface has a great deal of unused potential. But what if all the city’s decision-making matters were available through an open interface for the use of application developers and others interested?

Technical existence of the city’s case management

The Ahjo case management system is critical from a point of view of the City of Helsinki’s decision-making. All decisions concerning the city are prepared through Ahjo, and it is estimated to have about 5,000 users from city councillors to officials.

Helsinki has one operating model for making official decisions. Many cases are decided upon in different committees and boards focusing on various fields of administration, but strategic and more important decisions are referred to the City Board or City Council. In accordance with the decision-making model, the life cycle of cases consists of four stages:

  • Activation: Cases are brought into the system through the city authorities’ joint registry office, which classifies them and gives them record numbers.
  • Preparation: The authority or public utility responsible for the case prepares the decision proposal.
  • Decision-making: The completed decision proposal is decided upon in the appropriate committee or board or in a higher administrative body. Depending on the case, it is also possible to delegate the power of decision to an individual official.
  • Implementation

The decision-making of the city is based on written materials. When a case arises requiring a decision, it is entered into the system as a document and is given a unique record number. The system creates an XML format file containing several codes depicted in the record number fields.

A meeting’s agenda may contain, say, a topic “Updated Helsingin Energia development programme for a carbon-neutral future”, whose record number in long form is HEL 2011-007015 T 14 03 00. By means of this number, it is possible to find the board meeting of the municipal power utility Helsingin Energia where the same case was previously preliminarily dealt with. The records are thus key to understanding the decision-making between the City Board and the city departments and public utilities.

Ahjo contains data on, for example, the subjects of the meeting dealing with the case, the field of administration, keywords, cases proposed and decided upon, and geographical information concerning cases, the names of meeting attendees and much more. Through the data content of the records and Ahjo, it is thus possible to monitor and analyse the city’s decision-making comprehensively.

In spring 2012, HRI organised the first workshop which, together with developers, considered how best to build an open interface for Ahjo. In this way, decision-making data would be available for the use of all interested developers. The workshop decided that, in the first stage, the easiest thing would be to publish on the Internet XML files containing decision document data behind a firewall, and to describe their content so that people applying it from outside the administration would also be able to use it.

The Ahjo system was still at an introductory stage in 2012, so the implementation of an open interface was not the first priority. Nevertheless, in due course the city took active steps to proceed with the interface project, and in March 2013 the first version of the Open Ahjo interface was published.

Electronic watchdogs for citizens

In Finland, voters have for years used voting advice applications (VAA) offered online by media companies. VAAs help citizens to find the most suitable candidate for them for the municipal council or parliament.

The data used by these VAAs has also been published as open data. As a result, many visualisations have been created which make it even easier than before for voters to reflect their own attitudes against those of different parties and candidates – or to analyse what kind of a person would be the perfect candidate for a Member of Parliament, according to the majority.

Online services are not merely restricted to voting. In the pilot version of the Kansanmuisti.fi online service, for example, you can follow the speeches and voting of MPs in parliament – to see whether they carry out their election promises in practice. According to the home page of Kansanmuisti, “in the future, you will also be able to cast your own ‘vote’ as if you were an MP and see how your opinions compare with those of the real MPs or civic organisations, in the manner of the VAAs. In future, you will also find election funding data compiled in one place.”

The Datavaalit.fi community has been actively promoting the opening up of key data concerning elections and public decision-making. This community supported by the Finnish Innovation Fund SITRA built services for the 2012 municipal elections, which helped people to find not only basic information about the candidates, but also their updates in social media, and which enabled users to follow the accumulation of advance election funding notices.

It is interesting to see what is the future impact of being able to follow more easily the promises and actions of politicians. For example, will it have a decisive impact on people’s voting behaviour or not? This would be worth researching.

It is clear that monitoring the actions of decision-makers will become easier and easier. But what else that is beneficial from the standpoint of citizens will open decision-making data be able to offer in future?

Co-operating with developers to build an open city

The Open Ahjo interface was only published in March 2013 and, as was learned from the council video interface project, it may take some time before developers really start making use of it. The city’s Code4Europe partner coder, Juha Yrjölä, modified the Open Ahjo XML interface into the even more developer-friendly REST interface, which lowers the threshold of developers to grasp the subject. Yrjölä himself immediately took advantage of the new REST interface and programmed a prototype user interface with open source code onto the interface.

Open Ahjo brings decisions onto a map which can be searched by district and theme, and the cases and their history can be browsed in an illustrative way. With regard to council meetings, the application can also take advantage of the open.helsinkikanava.fi council video interface and, for each agenda item, it shows the speeches of the councillors as video clips. All the code produced by partner coder Yrjölä is available as open source code, so that anyone who wishes can use it and modify it.

A prototype user interface to Open Ahjo, allowing users to browse political decisions made by the City of Helsinki.

To cite a real-life example, I have used the Open Ahjo application to find an explanation of why the city made a decision to increase the height of a block of flats in my neighbourhood from the planned eight storeys to 12 storeys (and, in the opinion of some of the residents, spoil the view). The application is in itself already an improvement on the present situation, but in the future it will become even better. A keyword search, for instance, will make it much easier for the users to find more information on cases that interest them.

This prototype application is opening people’s eyes to all that can be done with open data. The intention, however, is not for the city to make all of its open-interface-based electronic services on its own – instead, the idea is that anyone would be able to use the interfaces to build the applications they desire. These can be used by citizens, district associations and the media – even companies that perhaps wish to analyse the city’s decisions for commercial purposes.

One user of open decision-making data is the Openhelsinki.net community which is building a more advanced user interface for decision-related matters. The aim of this community is also to support dialogue between decision-makers and citizens by enabling the discussion of decision-related matters in social media channels, for example. In that way, it is easier to refer to the individual cases. Simply giving each matter a unique URL and offering ‘Tweet this’ and ‘Share on Facebook’ buttons would help their distribution through social media.

During the next few months, it will be interesting to see how many people find the open decision-making data and realise the possibilities that it offers. Helsinki is encouraging developers to use data to make useful applications and offering support and inspiration through, for example, the Helsinki Loves Developers developer portal, the Open Helsinki – Hack at Home support programme and the open data application competition Apps4Finland. The idea is for the developers to tackle the challenges faced by the city with the help of open data applications, and the best entries will be rewarded.

The themes of the competition challenges concern the monitoring of the city’s decision-making and facilitating civic participation. In this respect, co-operation is also being carried out with the state administration, and one interesting perspective is how people can participate in discussion concerning municipal decision-making and influence it, for example through the Otakantaa.fi service provided by the Ministry of Justice.

EU supports the realisation of the vision

In summer 2013, the Helsinki Region Infoshare service was awarded €100,000 in the European Prize for Innovation in Public Administration contest. The intention is to use the prize money among other things to improve the compatibility of the decision-making data in Ahjo with the city’s other data, such as financial and geographical information and statistics.

Our vision is that one day the city’s decision-related matters would be automatically linked to euros, plans and projects.

The prize money will also help to build our vision that – one day – the city’s decision-related matters would be automatically linked to euros, plans and projects which, through different visualisations and applications, would be in a form that is easier for citizens to understand and to comment on.

We also want open data to inspire the development of new innovative services for citizens. We will use part of the EU prize money on finding ways to encourage the developer community to take part in producing applications that illustrate what can be achieved when data sets work together. In this, we are seeking co-operation with, for example, Open Knowledge Foundation Finland, the local developer community and other cities developing similar things.

The EU has found our project so interesting that it has harnessed the expertise of Accenture together with a team of students from the College of Europe to carry out a case study on the project. The purpose of the study is to help us and others interested in the subject to understand how our work can be scaled and duplicated for other cities, and how co-operation with different actors in the open data ecosystem – such as developers – can be achieved in a fruitful way from a perspective of the different parties. The aim is also to benchmark projects around the world targeting administrative transparency from which we could learn and which could supplement the work we are doing.

Experimenting our way to the future

Open data is a reality, but it will take time before it is truly integrated as part of the activity and processes of the public sector. It is also a question of a digital revolution, which over time may change our culture and practices more comprehensively than we can now imagine.

There is, however, no benefit to be had from open data unless it meets demand and is used. It is to be hoped that in future different target groups will have at their disposal a wide range of electronic services and applications that enrich life and make it easier.

It would be great if, though the media, social media and other channels, even traditional e-mail, citizens could get more topical – and meaningful – information about the city’s decision-making, and that this would encourage them to discuss and participate in public decision-making in many different ways. This would promote democracy.

Hopefully through this, decision-makers and officials, too, might get a better overall picture of the operations of the city, and support municipal decision-making through ‘smart’ recommendations based on different data. This would lead to better-informed decision-making.

Decision-making cuts through everything that a city does, and its analysis might also have interesting areas of application in urban research. Ahjo uses a classification of functions which is based on an information management plan drawn up by the City Archive at the City of Helsinki Urban Facts together with other city departments and public utilities. Open decision-making data could thus produce added value, for example in analysing the history and activity of the city’s departments and utilities. An interesting additional source for such research would be the discussions on the council videos, provided that we find a way to publish their transcriptions as open data.

There are many hopes and wishes – and even more work to be done. Something that you can do is to promote the opening up of data in your field, encourage different actors to make use of data and to boldly experiment with how this can improve your own organisation. We do not always know where our experiments will lead, and the future rarely turns out exactly as we imagine it. But this makes the realisation of dreams all the more interesting!

Ville Meloni is Project Manager in the Helsinki Region Infoshare project.

This article is originally published in Helsinki Quarterly 3/2013 magazine in December 2013. The article is also available in Finnish: Läpinäkyvä kaupunki

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Ville Meloni
2 years, 4 months ago
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