Interrogating The Open Data Ethos (or Open Data != Open Governance)

The US government is cutting funding for it’s Open Data hub, (EDIT: this is a significant change from earlier murmerings that the site would have all funding cut. For more on the in’s and outs of this I can recommend Flowing Data’s Nathan Yau’s overview here)

This (earlier news that the site were to shut) has caused no small amount of gnashing and wailing among open data advocates. In itself the news is a touch disheartening given that only opened a year ago or so. Tom Steinberg weighed in with this passionate defence for the need for and similar hubs

Whats interesting in Steinberg’s defense is how he tackles the suggestion that is being dropped due to incommensurate cost to traffic ratio (I will quote him at length here)

I think the notion that a large volume of people should ever be expected to come to sites like, and that these sites should offer mass market, easily accessible content is quite wrong (although I have sympathies for the political pressures that might have been at work when the funding was originally granted) . Sites like should be entirely honed to serve the needs of a small number of frustrated data seekers, whether from business, journalistic, research or social enterprise backgrounds…

There is no more need for a to be a big shiny, well trafficked site than there is for a page on Public Key Encryption to be shiny, friendly and well trafficked – what counts is that the right people (who in that case work for our banks, and our governments) do visit those pages sometimes and get the things they need to. When their needs are met, we all benefit – we get secure banking and private email as a result.

The open data community should shake off its guilt about not producing data for direct consumption by end users – power station managers don’t feel guilty about not producing iPods.

I don’t disagree with Steinberg, as I understood the Open Data movement was always aiming towards such an end. However during my ongoing work with Bristol County Council and their Open Data sets I’ve become more versed in other elements of open data rhetoric.

I’m going to call a spade a spade in this instance: to my eyes open data was a movement designed to get data to software programmers and journalists to make more products and better stories. Lets look at the other element of Open Data sophistry which has become prevalent, the idea of engaging citizenship.

The dataset we are working with in Bristol is the expenditure database, which the council describes thusly:

Bristol City Council individual payments to suppliers with a value over £500 made within the month. Publication of these lists forms part of the Council’s commitment to be open and transparent with its residents.

This idea of open data being equated with transparency is not just one which we see in Bristol Council, take the blurb for Eyebeam’s DataVizChallenge:

At Eyebeam we believe that open culture, creative design, and powerful data visualization have the capacity to make information transparent, inform citizens, and inspire communities. This Data Viz Challenge is an opportunity to actively engage with where our tax dollars are being spent.

There is a glaring gap here: it is possible that making spending data open will inform citizens and inspire communities. But it’s clear it doesn’t happen without a mediator. And to my eyes it appears like the next step after opening data will involve commissioning creative and artistic projects around open data to generate a bit of buzz, and thereafter it will be left to a Big Society of coders and developers to better facilitate citzenship via the open data reservoir. Because the data as it exists is not palatable to the non developer eye (even bunging the expenditure dataset into Excel and filtering it doesn’t illuminate a great deal). Indeed the Open Society Foundation identifies a particular subset of society as civic hackers and singles them out as crucial to Open Data’s continued productivity (for more see their study here).

And thats ok, if governments and councils can stop pedalling the line that somehow Open Data is equatable with transparent government. Anything that necessitates an additional layer of mediation to be intelligible is not terribly transparent.

Have a listen to David Cameron wax lyrical about how Open Data == Transparency

UK Uncut have done great work illustrating how the Tory’s are adept at hi-jacking a crisis as legitimation for ideological overhaul, I believe something similar is at work in Cameron’s proffered view on Open Data

Greater transparency across Government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account; to reduce the deficit and deliver better value for money in public spending; and to realise significant economic benefits by enabling businesses and non-profit organisations to build innovative applications and websites using public data.

Of which only the last point seems resonant with what I imagined Open Data was setting out to accomplish. How to best gauge this? I figured that returning to Tim – Berners Lee’s Original call to arms for ‘raw data now’ was a good place to begin (you can watch the whole talk over at TED)

Berners – Lee seems to adopt the simple adage that people take data and do something with it. That something is not set in stone as increasing accountability. The premise of linked data is that “Data is relationships”. In Berners Lee’s own words

“Transparency is important, but it’s not just about transparency… it’s about making the world run better by making this data available”

The examples he cites typically come from lots of previously disparate data sets being mashed up, the combinatorial power of relational databases realised. Open street map provides an important precursor (which runs off the general contributory ethos of open source culture, like Wiki etc.)

“Linked data is all about people doing their bit to produce a little but and it all connecting”.

What is curious about this general commendation is that it appears so keenly in step with government’s Big Society rhethoric.

Most interestingly he opines that “When you connect data together you get power”. This may prove to be the most interesting consequence for politicians, if all open data is meaningfully connected where  do the politicians fit in the larger picture of governance (after just how long has Belgium managed with a government now?)

~ by Stephen Fortune on May 11, 2011.

One Response to “Interrogating The Open Data Ethos (or Open Data != Open Governance)”

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