Interview: Hera Hussain on the need for open data

Hera Hussain is Communities and Partnerships Manager at OpenCorporates, the world’s largest open companies database. When she isn’t busy organising hackathons and liberating corporate data from across the internet, she works with the social entrepreurship movement MakeSense and empowers women to achieve independence through Chayn. She spoke to Interhacktives about her experiences with open data, its importance, and the role that journalists should play in making it more accessible.

A basic right

“I initially misunderstood it,” Hera says, of her first encounter with open data as an organiser of WikiMania, an annual event focused on wikis and open content. “Like many other people, I could only see some applications of open data. For example, I thought it would be really useful if government posts statistics on crime. What I didn’t realise is that the aggregated statistics aren’t important. Anybody can come up with those numbers; the important thing is the underlying data. It’s not just about how many knife crimes have happened, it’s more about when they happened, where they happened – the little details.”

“Data should be a basic right,” she goes on. “And that wasn’t very clear to me until I started working for OpenCorporates.”

What does being Communities and Partnerships Manager for OpenCorporates entail? “It’s my job to make sure that the data held by OpenCorporates is used for social good – by journalists, by NGOs, by citizens, by other open data organisations. My job is to make sure that happens and also make it easy for people to contribute open data.”

One of the ways people can get involved in contributing open data is through taking part in #FlashHacks, monthly hackathons where anyone can come along to liberate and map corporate data or write bots that will convert the data into accessible formats.

Hera Hussain wearing a red T-shirt with the word "FlashHacks" across the front, against a crowded backdrop of hackathon attendees wearing similar T-shirts and sitting at tables
Hera Hussain at a FlashHacks hackathon


The importance of open data

Believe it or not, the UK is one of the world leaders in open data, alongside New Zealand. “Especially company information,” says Hera. “Our Companies House is really open to suggestions from the NGO community and the open data community, and they’ve done great work in opening up the database. The government has a really pro-open data stance which makes it possible for this all to happen.”

What is the most important thing about having open data? “I think it’s the fact that it exists,” Hera says. “People always say open data is very elitist. Only people who can work with data can use it. But because I think it’s a right, the fact that it exists is really important, because there will be somebody who can use it. We can leverage their knowledge to make things better.

“There’s always somebody out there who can apply it, and while there’s a big gap in terms of understanding data, I think eventually that will be filled. You can say the same thing about engineering, you know – engineering’s really elitist, because not everybody can understand how machines work or how buildings or materials work. But those who know how to make it work make it work for everybody.”

Making an impact

Ideally, she says, more people should be educating themselves about data and what it can do; but it might take a different approach from the data community to generate more interest in open data. “The problem is that things that make an impact on people are stories. I think we need more of that and I think the whole open data community is realising that, is trying to create a storyline of how it can be applied and how it is being applied.”

Is this a role that journalists should be playing? “I think it’s a responsibility. I think you become a journalist because you want to report on something that’s true, or you want to investigate something that you don’t know about. In both cases I think preferring open data over proprietary data is really important.”

Of course, the right data isn’t always available for journalists to tell the stories they want to, but Hera is optimistic that this will improve as the open data movement and data-driven journalism gain momentum. “So many times I’m contacted by journalists who want to work with open data and have a very strong hypothesis that they want the data to prove or disprove, but the data’s not available, so there’s no way to do it,” she says. “I think that can be quite frustrating. But I think the new data-driven tide in journalism is interesting, and I think these things are going to be much easier to do in the future. As we liberate more data, there’s more pressure on governments to release data, more pressure on companies to release data in the right formats, so I think the future is promising. It’s just that there’s a long way to go before it becomes easier for journalists.”

Change is coming

What does she think is currently the biggest obstacle to making data more open? “Two things, from OpenCorporates’ perspective: one is that we need so many more bodies of volunteers to actually scrape the data sets … And we need to actually find them as well. Finding data in itself is a big, big problem. Some people say that it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, because as governments and companies are realising that people are making use of this data to do things that they might not like, they start closing them down. So many corporate registers have closed down in the last year.

“There’s not enough incentive for them to release information, so we need to ramp up the pressure on them. But at the same time, there’s something there which they don’t want to get out, which is why it’s not happening.”

“I am glad that there is a conversation happening, and journalists are a big part of it. They put pressure on governments and companies to be more transparent.”

But things in data aren’t all doom and gloom. As previously mentioned, the UK as a whole has a positive approach to making data open, and next year this will improve even further with the launch of a central register of beneficial ownership for UK companies. It will mean that companies have to disclose information on anyone who controls more than 25% of the company’s shares and voting rights, starting in April 2016.

“I think we will definitely see a difference [in the amount of open data] starting from next year,” says Hera, “because the beneficial ownership information will be open in the UK. Other countries have said they will open it as well. For the next two or three years, I think we’re definitely going to see some change.”


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