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Whose Access to Information Is it Anyway?

Maya Brahmam's picture

The recent storm about the Facebook IPO and whether big investors got access to better analysis than individual investors made me think about the open agenda again: Whose access are we guaranteeing? If we say that data is open, do we have the moral obligation to help people navigate that information?

An article by Peter Whoriskey and David Hilzenrath in The Washington Post, Scrutiny Focused on Pre-IPO Hype, says of Facebook’s disclosure: "It was just the kind of information that could make you a million. But you couldn’t find it..." They went on to note, "A raft of complex regulations attempt to ensure that the information public companies give out to investors is not only true but is distributed in a way that does not favor big institutional investors over so-called retail investors…"

So while this imbroglio continues, I think we have to face the broader question that "open" doesn’t automatically translate to "empowered."  Tim Berners-Lee famously noted during a TED Talk, "If people put data onto the web, it will be used by other people to do wonderful things…" 

The reality, however, is more prosaic. As Mike Gurstein pointed out in Open Data: Empowering the Empowered or Effective Data Use for Everyone?: "The suggestion implicit in most of the discussions on "open data" … is that "everyone" has the potential to make use of the data. However, as we know from experience elsewhere, not "everyone" has access to the digital infrastructure, to the hardware or software, or to the financial or educational resources/skills which would allow for the effective use of data or any other digital resource."

This is not to say that open data does not have many direct benefits, but I think Gurstein argues fairly that "in the absence of specific efforts to ensure the widest possible availability of the pre-requisites for "effective use" the outcome of "open data" may be quite the opposite to that which is anticipated (and presumably desired) by its strongest proponents."

I leave you with this thought from Joshua Tauberer in his recent book on Open Government Data, "In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves' character faces an early choice. If he swallows the red pill, he would become Neo and see the troubled world for what it really is. But if he takes the blue pill, he would return to a life of ignorant bliss as Mr. Thomas Anderson. At first his decision to see the harsh reality is celebrated by the audience. And yet by the end of the trilogy we've learned that the choice was a set-up all along orchestrated by the machine in control of the universe. Knowledge has unexpected consequences. ..The type of government data …discussed throughout this book isn't dangerous ... But it is the type of information that can lead to widespread systematic changes. Teaching the public how government works, uncovering corruption, and promoting policy changes such as public financing of elections can lead to broad changes that affect many aspects [of] our society…"


Photo Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

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