Is Open Data a useful lever to increase transparency in government?

"Governments find it easy to act on the efficiency side of open data while neglecting transparency" - Tom Slee discusses issues with Open Government Data

Image: CC-BY-ND 2.0 Flickr: Maurice Koop

Advocates for Open Government Data can point to a large number of useful data sets being released by governments of several countries, but the net effect of this data explosion may not be an improvement in the transparency and accountability of governments.

Open Government Data is promoted as a means to two goals: improved efficiency and increased transparency. These goals are a bit like chocolate and cheese: both are good, but it is not clear that they have very much to do with each other. The dual-target nature of the movement creates a serious set of problems for open data advocates.

One problem is that governments find it easy to act on the efficiency side of open data while neglecting transparency. As the Open Rights Group has pointed out (link), the UK government is an enthusiastic open data supporter, and yet its programme “is an unhealthy conflation of transparency, data on public services and personal data, all of which converge towards the "Open for Business" principle.” In Brasilia last month the conservative Canadian government---a government which just eradicated an essential part of the Canadian census which routinely prevented government scientists from talking to the public without ministerial approval, and which has developed a reputation for secrecy and centralised control ---was welcomed into the Open Government Partnership on the basis of a plan built around “expanding access to Open Data” (link).

A second problem is that there are significant commercial interests under the open data umbrella who are steering open data initiatives in self-interested ways. Who do you think is making this idealistic call to action?

“Do you embrace the idea of a transparent, participatory and collaborative government? Do you believe technological advancements such as web 2.0, social computing and cloud computing lie at the core of making these ideas a reality? Do you wish to be actively involved in this transformation? If so, the Open Government Data Initiative is for you!”

Yes, it’s Microsoft (link).

From a business point of view, open and closed are not opposites. Instead, they are complements: things that go together, like fish and chips. When the price of one goes down, demand for the other increases: lowering the price of fish means that more people eat fish & chips, which raises demand for chips and makes potatoes more valuable.

So who stands to make money from open data sets? The complements to data are things like other data sets, a large base of skilled programmers and computer hardware and software platforms. While much of the open data rhetoric focuses on making data available to “the public”, these complements are things that established technology companies, and Silicon Valley’s aggressive and wealthy venture capital sector, are best poised to exploit. Many open data advocates see themselves as being opposed to “vested business interests” (to use the ORG’s phrase), but they may be unwittingly promoting a whole new set of business interests instead.

What’s more, network effects and increasing returns to scale make many digital technology markets winner-take-all in nature, as the success of titans such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook demonstrates. The new industries created by open data may be more concentrated than those they replace and that means that the companies at their head will be more powerful. Hackathons of civic-minded programmers building community tools sound great, but it is also possible that in the long run open data may “further empower and enrich the already-empowered” to quote community informatics leading light Michael Gurstein. For those interested in a more transparent and accountable society, the creation and promotion of new oligopolistic industries is not something to be welcomed.

Given the range of conflicting interests and the ease with which an agenda based on “data” can be rephrased and repositioned, it seems to me that there is nothing holding together the various proponents of “open data” beyond a commitment to more public bytes, and that’s not enough for a cohesive movement. Advocates committed to improving civil liberties need to ask themselves if their open data partners in government and business are really walking along the same road.

 

Tom Slee is the author of 'No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: The Surprising Deceptions of Individual Choice' (Between the Lines, 2006). Once a theoretical chemist, he now works in the computer software industry and also blogs on technology and economics at http://whimsley.typepad.com. He grew up in the UK and lives in Canada.

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By Tom Slee on May 22, 2012

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