Speak to anybody involved in opening up government data, and it won’t be long before they praise what's happening in Finland – particularly in the capital city of Helsinki.

One initiative sees papers for government and city meetings made available through open data so citizens can use apps to keep tabs on what’s being discussed, what is decided, and who voted for what.

It’s a far cry from the old-fashioned model of placing PDFs on a council website, containing little or no information about each member’s contribution to the meeting.

Developed by a Code for Europe fellow, it’s part of a broader scheme to release data from all aspects of life in the city, Helsinki Region Infoshare.

The Infoshare scheme went onto win a €100,000 prize from the European Commission, which has gone into funding Datademo, which offers €2,000 to developers for ideas that use open data to promote democracy in Finland.

Jaakko Korhonen, from Open Knowledge Foundation Finland, which is part of a project to get the system into other Finnish cities, says: “We just want to get this data out there – it doesn’t matter if we have direct access to a database, or if we have to scrape it from individual documents.

“Of course, we could have put daily Freedom of Information Act requests in and somebody would have to manually find the data – but we are in a very good co-working position. Everybody wants to open them up.”

'Open data removes costs'

Politicians themselves have benefited from opening up data, Korhonen says.

“Do you know who the main users are? It’s the decison makers themselves. The first chance they get to read the documents is on their mobiles while they’re sitting on the bus, or when they’re waiting for someone. So they use it all the time,” he said.

“Of course, they’re interested in the next council meeting or whatever - but they haven’t had this capability to do it themselves internally.

“This what all open data does, it removes transaction costs from the process. The greatest beneficiaries are the ones who have to make the decisions.

“They get to see the documents and think about them – and in that sense, we’re directly improving the quality of decisions.”

Sharing travel app

Other Code for Europe projects in Helsinki have included adapting Manchester’s City Navigator transport app for use in the Finnish capital.

“Of course, it’s a community-owned thing, based on Open Streep Map, Open Trip Planner and open traffic data standards,” he explains.

“We don’t claim the ownership, society owns it, but we have been doing hacking and research and development - Code for Europe should be endorsing reusing code and applications more.”

Kornonen points to Datademo as an effective way of working to promote reusing code: “People share ideas and peer review each other, that happens naturally. People see what others are doing, and offer to join, rather than a system where lots of people are doing the same thing.”

As for Code for Europe, he says: “From my work in the Open Knowledge Foundation, I know how hard it is to maintain a global network, so I can appreciate that there are challenges behind the curtains.

“I think just to have the institution and the network, a place where we can go and see all the applications, is really valuable. I lift my hat to the fact it exists.”

Snowy evening in Helsinki by Niklas Sjöblom used under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.