In the past year I have been attending a lot of conferences on Open Data and had several discussions with people, from the World Bank to the United Nations, on the IATI standard and how Open Data is (or not) impacting the development and aid work. From the Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva, to the UN Transparency Working Group in New York, the issues that development and aid organizations, as well as governments worldwide are struggling with and trying very hard to solve, are not only related on how you open up data and make it available, but how you move from Open Data to transparency and accountability.
As I have mentioned in a lot of presentations the issue for me lies fundamentally under two main paradox: one is the intrinsic understanding from a lot of people in the Open Data movement that Open also means transparent and accountable; the second one is that if transparency and accountability are the goals of Open Data, than there is an unanswered question: which is to whom?
Let’s start from the definition of Open Data.
The first assumption here is that “reusable” and “accessible” by everybody are attributes to the Internet. In fact, all Open Data projects I have seen so far, from governments to United Nations agencies, are entirely and sorely accessible online. Considering that more than 60% of the world population still does not have access to the Intenet, no one of those projects can be defined Open Data, but rather Elite Data. Only a minority of the population, normally the richest one, that has access to the internet, can access this “Open” data.
The second assumption is that Public is a perfect synonymous of Open. By are they really? And if not, what is the difference? Well the difference is that something that is only public is not necessarily re-usable by anyone, it is only accessible. The interesting part about this concept though is the fact that we assume that if something is machine readable is also re-usable, while this is not necessarily true. In fact, what it is true is that this assumption is a derivative of the previous one: if you have a machine that can read that format – hence if you have computers and electricity and some money to run it all,l then you can re-use the data. As per above all Open data available now it is not re-usable by the majority of the population worldwide.
A third assumption about Open Data is the immediateness of the consequences of opening it up: the overall mantra of the so called “Open Data Evangelists” is that Open Data is a good because it leads to more transparency and accountability. But for a government to be transparent there must be several other actions to be implemented than just publish some data online:
1) the data needs to be good first of all – and up to date;
2) the data needs to be relevant
3) there must be a firm intention to respond to inquiries and questions about the data, and explain what lies “behind: the data
4) there must be actions and institutions that allow citizens to hold the governmental accountable
Let’s take the example of the Kenyan Government and their open data portal: the data is indeed there, and it is accessible – again only by people that have an internet connection – but is the Kenyan government more accountable and transparent? If we look, for example, at the way the Westage Mall attack has been handled by the government, one may say, that in fact no, the Kenyan government is not more transparent than it was before. So why? Well my take on this is that while opening up data is matter of making information available to a broader audience, which is indeed war it is happening, the issue of transparency and accountability are much more related to a change in mentality and processes.
There is a strong assumption that when data is made available the underlying process of a government becoming more transparent and therefore being held accountable by its own citizens is also happening. But while we focus a lot of attention on the first part of this process, we do not really know how to tackle the second part. How do we make a government take responsibility for its decisions, once this decision are made clear from the analysis of Open Data? This issue is far more complicated than just creating an open data portal and it is strictly connected to a change in mentality that make that same government value the democratic principle of transparency and accountability towards its own citizens. The next step of Open Data is indeed, a process, where Open Data is only one product but now the end product. The end product is a new way to see the role of government in its own country.
A fourth assumption of Open Data is that Open Data is perfect. What do I mean with that? We assume that once Open Data is released people will take the best decisions and made use of that data in the best way. Mobile applications, data portals, online interactive maps, are all build under the assumption that perfect tools will lead to perfect decisions. But the truth is that even if the data is there, communities and people in those communities are not really using it. Why is that? The main reason is that we have been focusing so much on the data that we have missed a very important human characteristic: people are not interested in all data, people are interested only in what it is relevant to them and to their lives.
In 2013 at the ICCM conference I was sitting on a very interesting panel organized by ICT4Peace and this was one of the main point I tried to make. If we want open data to be “actionable” data, we need to make sure that that data is indeed touching on people’s personal lives and make that connection as explicit as possible. This is what triggers actions: I do act on things that affect me and my life. To make things relevant to communities and citizens then, we need to see what there is behind the data – hence we need to focus on the stories. Data is after all a representation of people’s life, stories, events, traumas and decisions. The more we are able to surface those stories, the more we are really Opening up the data and making it “real”.
So what’s the conclusion? Some time ago someone told me that I am an Open Data Skeptic. But I disagreed – I see the value and the huge potential of Open Data, but I believe that the Open Data movement is only scratching the surface of that potential. There is so much more than needs to be done, so much more that we can do as a community to make sure that Data is really Open. We have an amazing possibility here, which is that we can tackle those issues now, now that we are in the process of opening up more data, now that the community is sharing and learning how to do this. But we need to do this now, because if we keep focusing on the data and not on the processes, then we will end up with a lot of Open Data and no transparency or accountability. Or worst, we can end up with Open Data being used a shield to hide the lack of transparency and accountability.