Academy calls for appointment of Chief Public Data Officer

20 June 2019

Data held by public-sector organisations provides a wealth of knowledge for research and government policy, but is not yet fully utilised for that purpose. The data concerned is held by government agencies, the provinces and municipalities, health insurers, water management authorities, schools, and other organisations that carry out public duties.

That public data – needless to say with due observance of all the applicable privacy rules – could be used and reused more for research purposes. This is recommended by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in a report published on 20 June 2019. The Academy foresees an important role for a Chief Public Data Officer.

In order to perform its tasks effectively, the government has long collected data on individuals, businesses, roads, nature, emissions, homes, and so forth. The better access researchers have to that data, the easier it is for them to generate new knowledge. That will provide a wealth of knowledge, not just for researchers but also for government. Researchers can utilise the data to provide a reliable scientific basis for government policy. This is already producing good results in a number of areas, such as reintegration into the labour market and in research on pupils’ school careers using data from the Education Executive Agency ('DUO').

But not all public data is accessible to researchers. When reusing data, researchers themselves work according to the “FAIR” principles (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable). Government organisations could promote the reuse of public data by making it more 'FAIR'. In doing so, they ought be assisted by 'data stewards' with a thorough knowledge of privacy issues and copyright. Researchers often also incur unclear costs that are charged to them for obtaining public data. In addition, all public-sector organisations should include a statement in their annual report on the type of data they have collected and how they have made it available for research.

The Academy is asking the Dutch government to appoint a Chief Public Data Officer, at national level, who will take charge of making public-sector data accessible and re‑usable. The work would take place under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. Other countries have already gained positive experience with such a construction.

Conversely, the Academy believes that researchers should be less reluctant about approaching public-sector organisations and asking them to improve access to the data that they hold. Once their study has been completed, the researchers should also provide feedback to the organisation concerned about its results, the contribution to science, and the importance of the data provided for underpinning government policy.

The Academy provided its advisory report Reuse of Public Data. More Research and Better Public Policy [With a summary in English, Hergebruik van publieke data. Meer wetenschap en beter overheidsbeleid] at the request of the Minister of Education, Culture and Science. The committee that drew up the report was chaired by Pearl Dykstra, Professor of Empirical Sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam.