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Finland builds on its pioneering open information society


Sitra is committed to supporting a variety of initiatives which aim to make all kinds of useful data more easily available to Finnish citizens.

As a pioneer in internet usage and communications technology, Finland’s Information Society tradition is well established. Finns were doing their banking on home computers while the rest of Europe was still scrabbling around for its collective cheque book,  while similar early leads were taken in health care and taxation data collection and storage.

Sitra’s activities focusing on the Information Society are part of the effort to maintain this advantage while developing new, innovative and even more flexible models that can support Finnish society generally.

“It helps that there is a generally positive attitude towards data sharing among Finnish people, although there is still some resistance among the public sector,” says Ossi Kuittinen, who works with Sitra’s Information Society projects.

“An open society is based on open markets, open innovation and open data. In a complex and human-centric world, public institutions especially should change their role in society from a controlling role to one that is more enabling. This is possible with new processes and tools – and by means of open data. In fact, in Finnish communities citizens are already shaping their society by ‘crowd-sourcing’, collaborative consumption and other grassroots activity.”

High trust, greater sharing

Kuittinen expresses the need for a new experimental model, moving away from the current top level strategy, in order to mitigate the prevailing cautious attitude, focused only on avoiding mistakes.  “We live in an eternal work-in-progress society,” he points out.

Kuittinen observes a low hierarchical structure in Finnish society and a relatively high trust placed by Finnish citizens in their institutions. He sees these characteristics as useful when developing an open operational model with the aim of “a new Finnish success story that helps create growth and sustains the public sector”.  Data needs to be shared more openly by business, the public sector and individuals, although not at the expense of confidentiality. There are genuinely active citizens and radical public organizations leading development in this field.

In practical terms, Sitra is involved in several projects to develop and pilot service ideas that will lead the way in increasing the availability and processing of public data. Prominent among these is funding for Protomo, described as a “multidisciplinary and social innovation and entrepreneur environment” and a concept, according to Kuittinen, that has created 250 new jobs in the private sector. Protomo provides free facilities, know-how and support to help start-ups gain smoother access to the right markets for their products and business ideas.

Prize winners

Elsewhere, Sitra has championed the Helsinki Region Infoshare, an online service that makes it possible to access, search and use mainly statistical public data from the Finnish capital area. The very successful Apps4Finland competition organised by the Finnish Association for Online Democracy has been set up, too, to find new ways of making public sector data resources available and creating services and applications.

The 2011 competition invited entries to Idea, Application, Visualisation and Data categories, motivated by a number of special prizes worth up to €3000 in cash. These included a Special Prize for Data Journalism contributed by the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and rewarding an application idea that is applicable to data journalism, interactive graphics or visualization.

Sitra also promotes the construction of a Finnish personal health records platform, called Taltioni, that collects health information into a single searchable location. The health information of Finns has been stored electronically for many years – but the locations of that data have been fragmented by changes of doctor or residency, for example. Taltioni aims to ensure security and confidentiality while making access by patients to their own records much easier – and of potential use for future treatment.

From the excellent maps drawn up by the National Land Survey of Finland to economic records compiled by Statistics Finland, the rigid structures of data ownership are being broken down, says Kuittinen, reflecting an increasing willingness in Finland to usefully make available and share all kinds of data online – and laying the foundations for a truly open Information Society.

Tim Bird