Opening up the Open Data Movement

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.

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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.

Sunshine-Laws-No-Need-for-Nosy-Stories-Comic

A fourth assumption of Open Data is that Open Data is perfect. Why 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 organised 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.

Asia Trip 2013: Follow the adventures of a crisis mapper in Asia!

I owe an apology to my readers: I did not disappeared or stopped blogging, I just changed platform for a little while. No worries, this is still my official blog, but for the time being you can see what I am up to here. I am using this platform because it is simpler and easier, it allows me to post from my phone and not necessarily original content. As to say: different methodology, different content, different technology.

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I have started a long trip in Asia, visiting 6 countries in one month to work on social media, local technology communities, crisis mapping, local context with regard to communication with communities, media and much more. For the trip, I have set up a Tumblr, so I am using it to write about my trip, my discoveries, and interesting projects or people I am meeting.

I will be back blogging here once I am back into a more of a normal life, but for the time being, please refer to my Asia Trip 2013 Tumblr for more information about what I am up to 🙂

And, as always, contact me if you have any tips, suggestions or comments 🙂

Why citizens’ feedback is a false issue

The new mantra for the ICT4D community seems to be “citizens’ feedback”. The World Bank has embraced it, the donor community is putting out calls for proposals almost entirely focused on that, conferences on development issues always have a panel dedicated to that. The good news about this, is that it is a good thing that we are finally talking about incorporating “beneficiaries” (for lack of a better word) into our projects.

The bad news is that it seems that those discussions about citizens’ feedback revolve about the involvement of “beneficiaries” only at a later stage, almost ignoring their role on the initial stages of a project design and implementation.

Dennis Whittle, which I had the pleasure to meet in one of these conferences, resumes very well in this post the main questions that the ICT4D community (and others) is trying to find an answer to:

  1. How do government agencies, donors, and citizen groups provide incentives for broad-based feedback?
  2. How do they know that feedback is representative of the entire population?
  3. How do they combine the wisdom of the crowds with the broad perspective and experience of experts?
  4. And, perhaps most important, how do they ensure that the feedback mechanisms are broadly adopted and actually lead to positive changes in aid projects?

Incentives to provide feedbacks

The question about citizen’s feedback is more or less the same question that the crowdsourcing community has been asking itself for quite some time now. When looking at a crowdsourcing project, you normally will see over time that participation in the project assume the form of a bell curve skewed on the right. Plotting time in the X axes and number of people participating on the project in the Y axes, you will see that the initial participation will be low, to increase then until it reaches a critical point, and then decrease again.

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The variables that will affect this distribution are of course related to implementation strategies: the outreach campaign is particularly important in the beginning, while in the long term what become key is the ability to show an impact or to give something in return. This return may be a material incentive, money or information, or “gifts”, or a more substantial return: impact. The first one is difficult to maintain, unless you have a very good business model or endless resources. The second one will guarantee your success, but it is hard to prove and often not really achieved.

How to make sure that feedback are representative

This is a very important issue and it can be broken into two different issues. One is related to whom is engaged in the process. Most organizations that try to implement citizens’ feedback mechanisms use civil society organizations as a subject representative of the citizens. The problem here lies on the fact that depending on the context civil society organizations may not be representative of all the citizens and may have their own agenda. Most often they gather around one specific topic and for this reason represent only one sector of the population. By definition, in this case who is represented is only the sector of the population that is aligned with the vision of that specific organization.

The second issue is the fact that when using technology for citizens reporting, like SMS or mobile phones, or the Internet, only citizens that have access to that technology or knowledge on how to use it will be part of the process. Most often women and elders are left outside of the equation. Even more often, the illiterate part of the population and the poorest, which have no access to the Internet or mobile phones for example, are also left outside. In this case the people that will really be part of the feedback mechanism are the richest, most literate and most educated. Which normally are also the one that are less affected by whatever issues the feedback mechanism wants to address.

The Crowd vs the Experts

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Several people lately have been questioning if citizens’ feedback are always needed or good. While I really do not have an answer to this, this issue looks to me less related to whom is right or wrong, and more related to a clear lack in education and 2 ways communication systems. If you ask me if I can take a Tylenol while drinking vodka, I will tell you no, and the reason is that I read the instruction on the Tylenol box and I know it is dangerous to do that. I am not an expert or a doctor, but I know that because I trust the expert that is giving me that information. If I don’t know anything about that, I may tell you that yes, why not? The ability of the experts to show evidence of what they say and decide, is what will make the crowd more informed and able to make the decision. It is also what may lead the experts to figure out that maybe they were wrong. If this ability is lacking, then the crowd may have a different idea on what the solto to a problem is. The same happens if the crowd does not trust the “experts”. The trick here lies in the evidence and in the trust, not in the talking, or in the assumption that just because you have a PhD you are expert in a specific issue.

Ensuring effectiveness of citizen’s feedback mechanisms

There is only one way to assure that feedback mechanisms have an impact, and that way is that the mechanism needs to lead to a result. Now how does it get to a result? Well this is the 1 m dollar question. A feedback mechanism leads to result if there is a structure and a clear goal behind the project. Collecting feedback without knowing what to do with it, or even worst, without knowing how to incorporate it into an ongoing project is completely useless.

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The real question is, if I get the feedback and it tells me that my project is not working or that people are not happy with it, will I be willing and able to change my project? How will I do that? Will I be able to say: hey this is not working we should stop and start again from the beginning? Or to change entirely the way the project is being done? The fact that there is alost no conversations about what are we willing to do with feedback, is worrying me.

Why this is a false issue!

Don’t take me wrong, those are very legitimate questions and I do understand what lies behind asking those questions. But to be honest, I think that the very fact that we are asking those questions is a demonstration that we are missing a very important point: citizens’ feedback mechanisms will never work if citizens are not part of our project design and embedded into the ay we work. Until we will keep designing a project, implement it, and then ask people to give us feedback, we will never get to the point where people will trust our mechanism or where we will have a real impact. Once we have already put in motion the machine of project implementation there is no way back. Donors will not be willing to re-fund entirely a project that has been already implemented, we would be less willing to accept criticisms after we have worked so hard to start a project, and most importantly, “beneficiaries” will not trust our system once they see that they have not even been asked if they wanted the project in the first place.

Don’t take me wrong; I know that this is difficult. I have been there. Involving communities in the very first formulation of an issue is not easy and sometimes it is not even possible. If we had to ask people in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia to vote if they want or not projects to protect women, I doubt we will ever do any projects in that sense. On the other side, we need to stop using this feedback mechanisms mantra to avoid talking about the real issue. We are still very much working in a totally hierarchical system, where we decide, we involve in the project only the local partners that agree with us, we decide who are the voices that count, and after that we add a feedback mechanism to label our project as a participatory project. The truth is that to create a feedback mechanism that works people need to trust you.

TrustYou need to cultivate and create a relationship. And you do it only by working with communities since the very beginning. “Beneficiaries” are not stupid. They have seen our feedback mechanisms before. They have answered tons of surveys, got our SMSs, called our hot lines, participated in our focus groups, filled our forms, etc. But they know they are not part of the system. The very fact that we need to “create” a feedback mechanism means that we do not even have a channel to talk to them, and for them to talk to us, in our projects.

But there is also another issue that I want to raise. A lot of those projcts are being implemented in places where the goal is to “to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness”. There is a huge focus on having people providing feedback for government lead initiatives or to increase transparency. But this also a false issue. First because if an NGO (or the World Bank) needs to create a feedback mechanism for citizens, it means that there is no institutional way already embedded into the government for citizens to report on service delivery. If this is the case, wouldn’t it be much better to invest money into making sure that those system are part of the way the   government think and create policies, rather than into creating an external system that will ultimately lead to the same results – the ultimate responsible of those services (the government)  ignoring the voice of their citizens. Because let’s be honest, when there is lack of those intuitions is not that the government does not know that citizens are unhappy: most of the times, they just do not care. If on the other side those institutions exist already, then why are we duplicating a system already in place, instead of reinforcing the existing one?

But also the transparency issue seems a false issue to me. The fact that we ask people to report on the services provided to them – being it from NGOs or from the government – does not mean that we are transparent at all. We can even publish the feedback, but still transparency is a totally different issue. If we really want to be transparent we will need first to focus on two other issues: open data and real M&E. This is transparency to me; we need to start inside the NGOs world, not outside it.

Wanna be transparent? Even before you tell me how happy your beneficiaries are, I want to know where your money is coming from, how you are spending them, who is evaluating your projects, what is the impact – and here I am not talking about if people are happy or not, but if you actually achieved to change anything at all-. Open all your data, then we can start talking about transparency.

This is the problem. This is the question we need to ask: are we using feedback mechanisms because we have not been doing our job in the first place? Is this a false issue to hide the real issues behind the way we do development projects?

Internet Governance Forum: real time open data vs security and privacy

I was invited to speak to a panel in the Internet Governance Forum on the 27th – 30th of September by AccessNow, on Privacy and security in an open/realtime/linked data world.

The goal of this workshop was to discuss open, realtime, and linked data generated, gathered, and organized online, which are proving vital to understanding local communities and the world we live in, ensuring more informed decisions are made at all levels of society. While online data is proving immensely useful, the dramatically increasing trend towards moving data online — whether knowingly, carelessly, or without consent — has led to unprecedented challenges to user privacy and security. At this juncture, Internet Governance is needed to clarify and codify the rights and responsibilities of various actors as regards online data.

The workshop featured short presentations from representatives of civil society, government, academia, and corporations, to facilitate discussion about theses issues amongst the panelists, the audience, and international remote participants, including members of Access’ network (now in 184 countries).

Topics for discussion included:
• How open/realtime/linked online data can aid development
• The use of crowd-sourced, geolocation, and mobile data
• Existing and emerging privacy and security threats of and to online data and ways to mitigate these risks
• How various stakeholders can assist the public in protecting their data and rights online
• Maintaining the balance between privacy, security, inclusivity, transparency, and accountability in legislation, regulation, and terms of service.

I was invited to speak as Innovation Media Advisor for the Africa Region for Internews Network on the use of real time data and the risks associated with that. In my talk I decided to use as example the project we are funding in Ghana, which is implemented by EPAWA – Enslavement Prevention Alliance for West Africa in collaboration with Survivors Connect. Both organizations work on human trafficking, and while EPAWA is a 4-years-old organization working in Ghana with civil society, governamental organizations and agencies and media, Survivors Connect has been working on this in Nepal and Haiti before, and it works as technical implementer for the project.

The pilot project is in fact a sort of experimentation of the use of mobile technology to support the creation of a local network of local monitors, civil society groups and governamental agencies to track the movements of children and women from the rural areas to the capital, and the case of domestic violences inside the communities themselves. The network will exchange real time information via mobile technology and with the support of a password protected Ushahidi platform.

I think this is a good example of the use of real time data but it also highlights some of the main issues I think can come out in other projects. This is the reason why I used this project as example.

The following are my main points of conversation at the workshop.

TECH IS NOT THE SOLUTION TO EVERYTHING – ESPECIALLY TO SECURITY 

My point here is that when working with real time data related to sensitive issues, like for example human trafficking, the main key factor to secure data does not rely in the technical security measures, being it encryption or other means, but it lies in the social network, and I am not referring to social online networks, but to social – real people – networks. I have notices many time in  my work that the safety of the information exchanged in any networks does rely heavily on the ability to create trusted networks on the ground that are able to secure information because of their deep knowledge of risks, dangers and sources of potential security threats. Those social networks are the ones that can still work when the technology is not there and are the true base of a secure system.

YOU CAN BUILD THE BEST TECHNICAL SYSTEM WHEN YOU START BY THINKING WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN TECHNOLOGY IS NOT THERE

Apart from the issue of security, what I think it is extremely important, especially if you work in Africa, is to be able to design information systems that always have a PLAN B. If you system does not have any way to work without electricity, or without internet, or without a phone, then you are building something that most likely is extremely vulnerable and that can be blocked by something as simple as a storm. Technology is always supposed to make things easier and faster, but if technology is the only criteria for the functioning of your system, then it is a limit and not a facilitator.

EDUCATION TO SECURITY MEASURES, THREATS AND VULNERABILITIES IS KEY

Another interesting thing that I notice when I was working in highly unsafe environments like Sudan and Egypt (under Mubarak regime), is that a lot of people underestimate or do not know at all the risks and the vulnerabilities of their real time information systems. Especially in those two cases, where I was working directly with activists, which were well aware of the potential risks of someone hacking or tracing their information, the level of awareness of the actual vulnerabilities of their systems was very low. If we go to less specilaized groups and especially into the world of small NGOs, the ignorance of the issue is even bigger. In this regard I have to say that 2 factors are the underlying casues of this situation:

1) Language. Cyber-security information are still written and explain in a way that it is too complicated and technical for a normal audience. If a small NGO, that does not necessarily have a cyber-security expert in its team, wants to find out information about how to protect their data, how to secure their servers and their emails and so on, most of times gets stopped by the complication and difficulties in understanding a language that it is not familiar with and instructions that will require too much espertise to be followed. (a very well done “Practical Guide to Protecting Your Identity and Security Online” edited by Access Now is available here)

2) Awareness. Too often software companies are not explaining in an open way what are the vulnerabilities of their systems, and too often technical equipment is sold without people having a real understanding of how this equipment really works.  We are seeing this with mobile phones: the majority of “normal people”, meaning not expert or part of the cyber-security world, do not know that their mobile phone is always traceable, do not know that their SIM card is traceable, do not know what an IP address is and what information it carries and so on.  The same thing is to be said about people using software without fully understanding what are its vulnerabilities.

WHERE DOES PRIVACY END AND OPEN DATA START?

One of the main challenges that I found when working with real time information systems is finding the limit in between Open Data and privacy and security. Let’s take again our Ghana project. The system built will be exchanging information related to children and women, to trafficking, abuses, and violence. For obvious reasons, a lot of the information exchanged cannot be public and needs to be handle in a very careful way. On the other side, if available publicly this information can be extremely useful and can lead to more preparedness and awareness of the problems faced by the communities on the ground, if not to more prompt response in urgent issues. Of course, there are ways by which this information can be filtered and made available, but even in this case, the more you “open”, the more you are increasing the possible risks and vulnerabilities of your system.  This tension is always there when dealing with open data and real time information systems, and it needs to be carefully dealt with on a case by case level.

eTransform Africa

On the last week of June in Johannesburg I attended a workshop as an external reviewer for the eTransform report on Climate change.  The World Bank Group and the African Development Bank, with the support of the African Union, intend to produce a new flagship report (“eTransform Africa Flagship”) on how information and communication technologies (ICTs), especially mobile phones, have the potential to change fundamental business and government models in key sectors for Africa.

The overall goal is to raise awareness and stimulate action, especially among African governments and development practitioners, on how ICTs can contribute to the improvement and transformation of traditional and new economic and social activities.

Furthermore, the studies should recommend ways in which to scale up the successful application of ICTs and to further operationalize their use within a number of strategic sectors, while paying appropriate attention to associated risks.

In order to provide analytical background for the study, the Partners have awarded a series of contracts to consultant firms to conduct sectorial studies of the actual and potential use of ICTs in the African economy.

The aim is to identify specific sectorial opportunities and challenges in Africa that can possibly be addressed through an increased or more efficient use of ICT, benefitting from a best practice analysis of applications around the world. Each study typically contains a scan of ICT applications in a particular sector followed by a more detailed study of two or three countries case studies, on a representative basis, chosen in conjunction with the partners. On the basis of this analysis, it should be possible to form a clearer understanding of the barriers to wider adoption and the factors for success.

These studies will then be used to assist the partners in formulating options for strategic interventions in these fields and to making appropriate recommendations.

The sector studies have been awarded as follows:

• Agriculture (Deloitte);

• Climate Change Adaptation (IISD);

• Education (ICT Development Associates);

• Financial Services (VitalWave);

• Health (VitalWave);

• Delivery of Public Services (Deloitte).

In addition, two closely related cross-cutting studies will look at:

• The contribution of ICTs to regional trade and integration (ICT Development Associates);

• The local ICT sector as a platform for regional trade and integration (TNO/Excelsior).

It has been incredibly interesting to participate in this workshop for several reasons and I have to say I was quite impressed by the approach that the World Bank and the African Development Bank have taken with regard to those studies.

  1. The crowdsourcing methodology that has been used to gather feedback and to publicize the reports before the release of the final versions. The eTransform website in fact is an open platform that allows anyone that is interested to download the reports from the website (the drafts of the report for now) and to add comments or suggestions to the authors. This approach is incredibly useful and will allow, if there will be participation, to anyone that work in the field to influence the content of the reports and to add their expertise and their experiences. This participatory approach is a win to win according to me as it guarantee the possibility for practitioners but also for policy makers to participate remotely on the drafting of the reports and in this way make the reports themselves a more comprehensive overview of the field.
  2. The use of external reviewers before the release of the final reports. I was called to do an independent evaluation of the report on Climate Change since I have been working as crowdsourcing consultant for the World Bank in the Pilot Project for Climate Change and Resilience in Zambia. The bank has decided to use the reviewer not at the end of the process but in the middle, which, which all its limitations, is a very smart approach. For three days the consultants had the possibility to discuss with both the partners and the external reviewers and experts in the field about their work, and to gather feedbacks, comments and suggestions on how to move forward.
  3. The use of social media to gather feedback on the report and the integration with blogs and multimedia. The eTransform website is definitely not the classical World Bank or AfDB website: twitter feeds, blogs and comment sections allow anyone, with any means, to participate in the process and everything is open and displayed in the website as it comes through. As the reports are on the use of ICTs in Africa, this approach underlines a deep understanding of the background necessary to make those reports a serious benchmark in the WB and AfDB approach to ICTs, not only in words but also with facts.

But what do those reports means in practical terms? And why are they important?

In the past year I have been working on application of ICTs for different organizations, from small NGOs to big international organizations, and what I noticed is that the main problems on ICT4D come from the policy makers side more than from the practical implementation. Where the overall background relative to regulations, infrastructures and policies is not there to allow a broader use and implementation of ICTs, e sub-category of cheap and low cost solutions are developed and created on the ground by local organizations and groups to use and apply ICTs in the present constraints.  At the local level I would say there is more understanding of the necessary use of those tools and of their possible applications. What is missing is the high level understanding of what this means and how this affect governance and national policies.

In this regard there is a missing study in the eTransform project, which is the one that goes deeper in analyzing the impact on governance: what ICT is doing in terms of political impact on balance of powers in African countries?  – Granted, both the World bank and the AfDB are probably not the right body to conduct a study on this topic -.

What I hope is that from those studies, policy makers around Africa will have a better understanding of the necessary actions to move forward in the definition of effective policies that can, if implemented, give to their own countries a better chance to take advantage of ICTs applications.

After those 3 days of discussions, I came out with a list of issue that according to me are the main important to keep in mind in any of the fields analyzed in the reports:

  1. The importance to look for locally created and implemented technologies that are born from local needs and developed inside the local existing national conditions.
  2. The pivotal importance of a political will to lower barriers in the market for the commercialization of mobile technology, satellite technology, Internet and general ICT infrastructure.
  3. The need for Africa Countries to look more at their neighbors than at the Western World in terms of possible application of ICTs
  4. The importance in all of this of the educational and research component, which can alone increase the market, the interest, the availability and the use of ICTs.
  5. The incredible important to look at the unexpected effects of the application of technology in Africa (as in all the rest of the world). ICT4D is not just about technology or about development; it is also about politics, social behaviors, sociological equilibrium, anthropology and communities.

I urge everyone that is interested in any of the topic mentioned above to visit the eTransform website and add their comments on the reports. Since it is the first time that this kind of process is being conduct in such an open way (according to my knowledge, but happy to know if there are other cases), I think it is important to participate and to contribute to the drafting or useful recommendations for  policymakers in Africa.

The search for neutrality in Open data and Crisis Mapping

The definition of Neutrality is the following: “the state of not supporting either side in a disagreement, competition or war” or “the state or position of being impartial or not allied with or committed to either party or viewpoint in a conflict, especially a war or armed conflict”. An example that everyone knows is Switzerland which during World War II, adhered to its neutral status by never officially becoming involved in the war.

The Red Cross is neutral, by its own status, “In order to continue to enjoy the confidence of all, the Movement may not take sides in hostilities or engage at any time in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”

According to Michael Meyer “The word ” neutral ” comes from the Latin ne-uter and means: neither one thing nor the other. An institution or a movement is neutral when it refrains from participating in a conflict and abstains from any interference. Refraining from participation and abstaining from interference can be for various reasons: it may be a question of self-preservation and self-assertion, of the judgement that good and bad, true and false are to be found on both sides, of holding back in the interests of a higher purpose or a special task. Neutrality may however have its origin in indifference, fear and cowardice. Neutrality in itself is therefore not a virtue.”

What is Open Data? “Open data is a philosophy and practice requiring that certain data be freely available to everyone, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. It has a similar ethos to a number of other “Open” movements and communities such as open source and open access.

In the last months everyone, including in the field of Crisis Mapping, is looking at what is happening in Tunisia, and Egypt (and lately in Sudan, Berhain, Iran and so on). One of the issues that is coming out of these debate is: can open data be neutral? If I make information available to everyone to see, maybe on a map, am I participating in the conflict in a way? And in this, if I set up a Ushahidi platform in a conflict setting, am I being neutral? And if not, how can I be neutral?

I have been thinking about this for a while now, and here there my answers. I am not expecting everyone to agree with this, but this is my personal view and as such I will state it.

Question 1: Can open data be neutral?

No. Open data is not and cannot be neutral, unless you decide to open only certain data and not others, in which case it is not really open data. Information is and will always be power, and I think that the events in Egypt and Tunisia showed this very clearly. If you are sharing data you are sharing power and as such you are compromising the establishment that hide himself behind that power. Freedom of information comes from this, and it is considered one of the pillar of democracy.  So, if you are releasing open data in a restricted environment, or under a repressive regime, you are not being neutral, you actively acting against that regime. Let’s take the example of Wikileaks: the released data regarding US diplomatic relations with foreign countries, in the spirit of open data. Is this neutral? Of course it is not, in fact people start jumping all over the place including the US that tried desperately to find a law that would allow them to jail Assange.

Unfortunately they forget that they are (sometimes) the first one to have in their constitution the freedom of speech and of information (and how they manage to combine this with censorship on the media, it is still unknown to me).  But the point here is that there is a very clear reason of why the US get so pissed at Wikileaks: not because of the data released (c’mon my grandma knew more than 90% of the stuff contained in those documents) but because the idea of releasing data that belong to a one of the world superpower is in itself a declaration of war.

Hence, open data is not and cannot be neutral. Open data is a very clear declaration of which side you are supporting, which in the case of repressive regime or not-so-free-as-they-would-like-to-be country, is the side of the people in general, the side of who wants open data because it is their right, and because this will give them power to decide and not only to know or to obey.

If I set up a Ushahidi platform/or similar in a conflict setting, am I being neutral? And if not, how can I be neutral?

You are not and you cannot be. My good friend told me when we were talking about Egypt: “Data as it is, it’s only data, but the moment you put it on a map it become intelligence and it is a completely different thing”. I have to say, I had never thought about this in this way, but she is right. Platforms like the Ushahidi platforms transform data into intelligence and in this way add a level of sophistication to the information: they add time, location and insert them into paths and trends. What it comes out is the same thing that defines the difference between massive violations of human rights and genocide: if you commit violations of human rights randomly or with a purpose but not systematically, you cannot be accused of genocide. If it is possible to identify a path or a strategy behind it, you are. So if you map a conflict, whatever is the reason you do it, you are participating actively in the conflict by providing intelligence. Now, this is definitely not neutral!

Could it be? No. Why? Because in the very moment you are setting it up and you are transforming data into intelligence and use the data or sharing it, you are messing up with the equilibrium (or disequilibrium) on the ground by providing additional information to whom may not have them and so you are in a way participating in the conflict. The only way you could do it and remain neutral is to create a map and be the only one using it, and not share any insight or information that you will learn from it.  But then what it the purpose?

I am not saying this to state that all the Crisis Mappers working in repressive regime are bad people because they are not neutral. I am stating this because being neutral is not always something that you want to do. How many of us wanted to be neutral in the Egyptian revolution? How many of us want to be neutral in the Sudan conflict? How many of us would like to be neutral if something like the Second World war happen again?

The real issue here is not how to remain neutral, the real issue here is to choose which side are you supporting and how you will try to help them more than others.

Organizations like the Red Cross and OCHA needs to be neutral and for a good reason: they are there to help everyone in the same way and their mandate is precise and specific. The Red Cross is an organization that worked with Prisoners of War and civilians and needs to be able to protect them physically. OCHA delivers humanitarian aid to affected populations, which in a conflict normally are on both sides. They act on information; they don’t divulgate information. And even in this regard, there are serious doubts about what neutral means when you are providing food and shelters to a population that the government of that country wants to eliminate.

Neutrality is a serious concept and a very difficult to prove as valid sometimes. But sometimes I just don’t want to be neutral. And sometimes you cannot be neutral unless you are able to compromise other values: the Red Cross and OCHA are not Open Data organizations, actually they don’t release almost any of their data. There is a reason: they are neutral, open data is not.