Open Data: Experiences & Views from a Newcomer

What kind of people work with public open data? What is my role at HRI? What do I actually do every day? These are just a few of many questions that I get asked about my job by friends and family. This blog entry will address these pertinent questions and it will provide a short summary of my academic and professional backgrounds before dwelling on the experiences I have gained from working with open data at the Helsinki Region Infoshare (HRI) service. I will try and keep this short and simple!

My background in a nutshell

From an academic point of view, I have enjoyed an ultimately international and multicultural upbringing throughout my education. I attended Munich International School for my entire school career (1991-2004), graduating with the International Baccalaureate bi-lingual diploma. I have always been interested in the mix of business and IT and as a result I moved to London (2005-2009) to study management (BSc) and business information systems (MSc) at Royal Holloway, University of London.

People watching a football game outside.
Multicultural experiences, FIFA Worldcup 2006 Argentina vs. Germany Public Viewing @ Augustiner Biergarten, Munich

Prior to joining the HRI service, I have worked in several projects (2009-2013) at the leading information provider for the global forest products industry as an assistant analyst and project team member. Briefly, my main responsibilities included calculating, compiling and publishing the annual World Tissue Capacity Report (2010-2013), as well as taking part in various other team efforts such as new product development. Also, I conducted my MSc Thesis at this company, analysing the alignment of their business, IT, and knowledge management strategies. I believe that this chain of experiences were fundamental in getting involved with open data at the HRI service.

My role in the Helsinki Region Infoshare service

I joined the Helsinki Region Infoshare service during January 2014, as a project secretary. My job title can be fairly misleading as it doesn’t properly reflect the current status of the service. The HRI project has become a service and a normal part of municipal operations in the Helsinki region as of January 2014. It has established itself as an integral part of the City of Helsinki’s strategy.

I was hired into the HRI service for a time period of 8 months to do some spring cleaning in the CKAN open data portal – as well as assisting in the long development process for the upcoming HRI website redesign (ETA in June / July 2014). My primary duties in CKAN are to streamline the classification of datasets by category, harmonise keywords and metadata, and to open and clean public data. Naturally, I have a lot of additional tasks and duties which can range from giving input into the design & development of the HRI service (front and backend), beta testing the developmental site, fulfilling international data requests, conducting research about open data & blogging, participating in various meetings, and shadowing the regular HRI steering group meetings. This is just a quick snapshot of weekly tasks – the nature of my work changes regularly according to my skills and experiences – variety in work is a great thing!

Private vs. public sector

This is my first time working in the public sector. Before I started I was in two minds about the popular misconceptions and stereotypes of working in the public sector. At first, I was hesitant to the idea of switching from the private to the public sector – albeit if it was just temporarily. This mistaken notion was naturally enforced through living in Munich for 20 years, where bureaucracy and red tape is a very common occurrence in the public sector. To be blunt – I couldn’t imagine myself to experience a platform for rapid personal growth in this sector.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I started this job in Helsinki. The small HRI service consists of an eclectic mix of people that successfully combine a wide variety of specialist skills and experiences resulting in a very strong and pleasant work environment. In general, the public sector in Finland (at least in Helsinki) seems to be a lot more open and transparent than in Germany – at least from my own experiences.

Differences in work flow

My MSc BIS Graduation Ceremony.
My MSc BIS Graduation Ceremony.

The biggest difference is that in my prior work I was heavily involved in the product lifecycle from the start to finish, so I became more than familiar with the capacity reports / market forecasts that I was assigned to. I was enslaved by MS Excel and spread sheets with dozens of interlinked worksheets with thousands of rows of data. I secretly enjoyed having these challenging experiences, as having advanced Excel skills became very useful for cleaning up public XLS data for the HRI service.

In my role at the HRI service, I am functioning in more of a facilitating position – so I spend my time with a lot of different tasks, without being stuck in one particular task. I do not produce open data myself – at most I only clean, format and prepare certain data sets before opening them in the HRI data portal. The HRI service is a “clearing house” governed by the cities of Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen. It acts as an interface for opening, sharing and promoting public open data to everyone in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. This has really showcased the importance of collaboration and transparency when opening public data as open data. The breakdown and variety of work makes my days at work very enjoyable!

Things I have learned

The variety of tasks has provided me with a broad overview of the challenges and opportunities in the process of opening public data. It has also given me the opportunity to learn about the City of Helsinki and its internal decision-making processes. It has been a very steep but pleasant learning curve, which I might not have expected to experience based on the short job description when initially applying for this position. Being able to shadow and participate in different tasks has given me a wealth of new ideas and opportunities to pursue in my future working career, whether it is in the private or public sector.

The most fun part of my job has been to have the opportunity to research the development of open data on an international scale. I will definitely follow up on this topic with another blog entry later on. I find it very interesting to read about other countries’ and cities’ open data initiatives, as well as comparing these insights with our HRI service. Some of these international open data experiences have flown into improving and optimising the upcoming version of the HRI website.

The most valuable thing that I will have gained is the experience working with open data and being a part in this quickly growing field. These are experiences that can be easily translated and exploited in other jobs in the future. It is always an advantage to work in a field that is at its infancy – the rate of growth and opportunities for learning are a lot higher than in a job situated in a mature, saturated market sector.

Kaarlo Uutela is a trilingual (EN, DE, FI) university graduate (BSc Management, MSc Business Information Systems). He has lived in Munich and London for 20 years before returning to his roots in Finland. Currently, he is working with public open data in the Helsinki Region Infoshare service. For a more complete overview of my background, feel free to visit my LinkedIn profile.