Does open data indeed restrict societies? It is a highly relevant question for Europe as well given the fact that Francis Maude presented his White Paper on Open Data (at PA Consulting) on June 28, as also discussed by the Guardian. According to Maude the Prize is enormeous "An effective personalised 21st century democracy with informed choice over better public services, and the development of new enterprices and new jobs built on exploitation of raw material of data". The guardian triggers a number of questions. However, I believe their analysis misses out on the most important impact of open data, which is 'marketing' of governance resulting in a closure of society space.
ICT activists have been heavily advocating for open data policies. And slightly older-aged politicians, not so familiair with all the possibilities of modern ICTs and triggered by their own hunger for a transparent government, have been supporting open data policies being naieve about its potential market value. Even leftish parties have supported this development, though in principle it can be considered as the heaviest attack on the modern state in decades. This statement needs some supporting arguments of course, which I will present in the rest of this contribution, hoping it will trigger you as a reader to comment and participate at the forum of this website.
Why open data does not imply transparency
My own encounter with open data started with the Results Report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands, presenting their results of their 2009-2010 record of public policy implementation (towards the end of last year). However, though the aim was to achieve full transparency, in my opinion the opposite was achieved. The report itself was not issued as a paper version, but was only available on CD, which basically presented a facebook version of the report. And just like with facebook, you will read only what you like and subsequently 'like' what you read. This ensures that every political party will only check whether his/her own amendments were followed-up and in what manner, without taking into consideration the full breath of foreign policy implementation. This narrow sense of accountability leaves a lot of space to harbour a number of interventions in corners of the report that those who do not know what to search for will never end-up reading. Only a current policy affirming summary was presented by the State Secretary of Development Cooperation to the representatives of the Dutch parliament. However, in his presentation Mr. Knapen focused on the availability of data in XML format that any smart guy or girl could query and turn into his/her own data source.
You read what you like and 'like' what you read
The above example already illustrates that the 'old fashioned' voluminous reports have been replaced by a report that tailors its content the interest of the reader. And though all content may be available upon request, the total content won't be presented in a coherent manner. This ensures that policy decisions are becoming hap-hazard responses to individual needs rather than comprehensive responses to policy failure in the past. So called 'preferential pathways' will be formed with politicians and lobbying organizations only checking whether their points have been considered and how they have been implemented. This turns every politician into a project owner instead of supporting or opposing public policies. This will finally be thinning the debate - in Dutch parliament already reflected by the number of parliamentarians available for public debate on some very important subjects, leaving it to so called 'specialists' of the same political color.
White paper or black ticket?
So, what does the white paper of the British government entail? Is it really as empowering as Frances Maude wants us to belief? And what is an 'effective personalized democracy'? I sense the public interest is traded here for private gain. There are at least two problems with data that will not necessarily be solved by making them accessible: quality and availability. In terms of quality: The only standard that is currently being used to identify the quality of the data is the one set by internet guru Tim Berners-Lee. It's the five star rating, featuring at many websites, allowing readers/users to rate the contribution they read. Talking about the power of the rating agencies today, what will this kind of rating do? First of all, who is rating and who is relying on this rating for his/her judgment? And in terms of availability, how do I know this is all data that is out there? In view of the above, these questions need to be answered first in order to rely on any data as 'facts'. And even if all data is available, presenting the 'complete picture' through data interpretation only computerized entities can do. Where algorithms have caused the financial crisis to hit hard, open data may give birth to the biggest governance crisis in human history. It is not hard to imagine that such will lead to full-fledged cyber warfare. Like with the gold rush and rush on the management of the ICT infrastructure, a new rush (this time on raw data) will take place - if not governed properly, providing black tickets to cyber criminals to use data at will. But also unequal playing fields, and unauthorized use of private data may be the result.
It is not difficult to give a sober analysis and hinting the future here. However, what can be offered in terms of solutions, while preparing ourselves for dealing with the likelihood of a seriously damaging string of events? The triangle of Defourney and Pestoff once again may help us understand what is going on. As disclosing governance data to private parties causes more overlap between private and public domains, the underlying question to answer is: How can we prevent advanced ICT business circles to completely overtake current governance, resulting in dictatorship by the economically most powerful on a global scale?
Again the child may not need to be thrown with the bath water. Firstly a solution may be brokered in breaking down data sets to manageable levels, i.e. to the level where they are being used by citizens and governed by citizens through citizen vote. This will avoid mass manipulation at a global scale. Secondly speed of data disclosure should be reduced in order to allow citizens and their representatives to match their data analysis skills with data availability.
Empowerment or disempowerment?
Some social innovators say - we don't need governance, we can govern ourselves (and I believe Maude is probably one of them). That sounds an appealing concept and potentially very empowering, but would loose out on the public sphere, where private an public interests meet. Of course, where they converge, governance can be reduced to a minimum. That is where the biggest efficiency gains can be achieved, also with use of the open data concept. However, where conflict remains, there needs to be a governing body to resolve them, preferably supported by a strong constituency, but clearly aiming at the public interest. Big society is to be governed by small though strong governance units, they may need to be organized in a representative body in the end to solve the global governance gap.
Open data proselytism
In short, sufficient reason not to be too optimistic about open data. Political leaders should be careful in considering handing over public data to private parties. Data disclosure to all means data use by some (as not everyone has the skills to analyse data at the same pace). That means more power with fewer people. Increasing distance between advanced digital economies and traditional societies. Though the number of digital devices to bridge the digital divide will increase, The number of people making it to the other side will still depend on 'gate keepers' and 'construction engineers' (both ICT specialists). I would still prefer the public officer to be the gate keeper so that all entrepreneurs may gain access, and not only the lucky few fat ones.
Featuring at the program of the Open Data conference were Jeanne Holm, Evangelist, Data.gov (U.S.) and Tariq Khokhar, Open Data Evangelist (World Bank). I would therefore like to call on the governments of the US and the UK for stopping their evangelists spreading their 'gospel' and stop this 'open data proselitism' towards all the nations of the world and adopt a much more considerate approach to it. High time for some disarmament policies and practice.