With Open Ahjo, a clear window into Helsinki City Council's actions

Helsinki's city hall (Shutterstock/ gadag)

HELSINKI, Finland — Ten years ago, I was working as a regional news reporter for Yle, the Finnish national public broadcasting company. In Finland, city council meetings are held monthly on Mondays. Before the meetings, we reporters would pry open several envelopes stuffed with printouts of council agendas and look for newsworthy items.

More often that not, a report, exhibit or some other attachment would be missing from the envelopes. So we’d have to go hunting for it online or grab a phone and try to track down the missing document.

If you’re covering Helsinki’s council meetings in 2014, however, there’s no need for any of that. And part of the reason is because Helsinki, as Citiscope reported this week, has bought into the open-data movement in a big way.

HELSINKI OPEN DATA

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Since 2001, the city has used a paperless centralized IT system for decision-making. It’s called “Ahjo.” Every document created in every bureau in Helsinki has been available through Ahjo, but only to 5,000 users including city employees and elected officials.

In March 2013, Ahjo was opened up to everybody through a programming interface known as “Open Ahjo.” As of now, it includes the work of 32 different committees and boards, their upcoming agendas and previous meeting minutes.

It’s all available for free online, and completely searchable by keyword, committee, or location. This makes it easy to follow, for example, every decision the Education Department has made relating to your neighborhood. It also makes it easy to keep track of specific items, such as . music lessons in preschools, as they make their way through the city’s bureaucracy.

Every document offered through Open Ahjo is “machine-readable.” What that means is it’s ready for software developers to build web-based or mobile apps with it. That’s exactly what a third-party developer — who doesn’t even live anywhere near Helsinki — has done by creating an app called Ahjo Explorer.

All this means our newsroom’s old monthly Monday ritual now could be handled with a web browser or even a smartphone. Open Ahjo is a unique solution worldwide and the reason why Helsinki recently won a €100,000 European Prize for Innovation in Public Administration.

The prize money will be spent on developing Open Ahjo even further. The next step is called Avoin Helsinki (‘Open Helsinki’), which means integrating other public documents into the system.

Granted, it’s not a perfect solution: True administrative transparency needs more than mere technical solutions. And there are technical glitches: When I tried the search function this week it didn’t work.

But it’s still a huge leap in the right direction. I’m already dreaming of a future where government can handle document requests without nickel-and-diming reporters and citizens by the page for documents that could easily be shared online for free.

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Olli Sulopuisto is a Helsinki-based freelance reporter. Full bio

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