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Is Open Data Really the Solution?

Sabina Panth's picture

Proponents of governments opening data to the public in order to increase transparency and better governance have been cheering recent developments, debates and discussions.  While I have used this blog to highlight many of the advantages of Open Data in instigating demand-led governance, I recently stumbled upon an article by Tom Slee which has a different take on the digital solution. Below I summarize a few points from Slee’s article which I feel are worthy of contemplation.

1. Open data benefits those who have the cultural capital to exploit it:  In his article, Tom provides an example of a ‘Landownership Record Digitization’ facility in Bangalore, India, where the elites were able to “directly translate their enhanced access to the information along with their already available access to capital and professional skills into unequal contests for self-benefit and to further marginalize those already marginalized.”  They were able to take the  information provided and use that as the basis for instructions to land surveyors, lawyers and others to challenge titles, court actions, exploit gaps in title, take advantage of mistakes in documents and identify opportunities to target officials for bribery, among others. 

As another example, in the context of a developed country like the US, Tom explains how the Twitter-savy crowd is able to directly communicate with legislators while the average, older and poorer population face a backlog of communications in the legislator’s back office.  In the context of grievance redress, more reports are likely to come from neighborhoods that are already better off, not only because of better accessibility to information but also because they can afford modern smart-devices and applications to report problems. 

2. Sometimes resources are more of a problem than information:  Tom believes that neighborhoods that are more well-to-do are able to face and address problems more efficiently regardless of whether more complaints are coming in or not, simply because they have better resources.  Arguably, the same indicator is applicable in evaluating the success of opening government channels between developed vs. developing countries.

3. Privacy is the other side of the coin:  Once data is targeted to be made public, it becomes important that ‘unsuitable’ data not be bandied about.  This could result in destroying or even hiding important data that could altogether vanish from public record.   In other words, will politically embarrassing records be ‘conveniently’ tagged as unsuitable? There is also the danger in misusing open data channels for commercial interests.  For instance, many elected officials maintain lists of email addresses for use in contacting constituents, and these lists are a common target for public disclosure requests.  It may be difficult to prevent misuse of these lists for spam emails and other inappropriate uses, like stealing identities.

Slee’s skepticism of whether the digital approach to the problem will actually lead to an increase in openness has been countered with equally forceful points by commentators of his article. Here are a few of them:

1. Yes, cultural capital can be used to exploit Open Data for self-benefits, at the cost of further marginalization of others.  But the very same information channel can be used to assess injustices to expose systemic-faults.  The outputs or the use of such information can be analyzed to disclose weaknesses or gaps in response, which can be used to pressure service providers for improvements.  Also, using technical solutions like geo-coding all service requests and stats, can demonstrate whether poorer parts of the city are being treated fairly.  

2. Granted, the poor and marginalized may not be able to make use of the available information as easily as their rich and privileged counterparts, but their representatives, such as NGOs, or watch-dog groups can.  There are many evidentiary examples of how open data has made it easier for civil society groups to do their job in improving the lives of the underprivileged.

3. The problem of commercial misuse can be addressed by considering licensing the data for non-commercial use only, or having a separate license for commercial users. Perhaps permitting some limited commercial use for free, but charging for more extensive use would help protect the data from the temptations of profit. 

The questions Mr. Slee raises demonstrate, once again, that seemingly unassailable solutions can and likely will have unintended ramifications. Unfortunately, in many cases one cannot predict in what ways well-meaning efforts will be thwarted by exploiters. Nevertheless, careful analysis of the risk associated with open data should be done beforehand with readily available options for remedy.     

Photo Credit: TonZ (Flikr User)


Submitted by T.V. Somanathan on
Thank you for pointing to a very important--if politically incorrect--truth about the limitations or even drawbacks of open data initiatives. This is a point that does need to be factored in when crafting policies on open data.

Submitted by parkersg on
I agree with many of your and Slee's cautions about open data, but I wonder where he gets *his* data... "In the context of grievance redress, more reports are likely to come from neighborhoods that are already better of...because they can afford modern smart-devices and applications to report problems. " All I keep hearing from Pew and other sources is that mobile phones and yes, smart-devices, are helping to bridge the digital divide - perhaps not as much with older poor populations, but younger poor and working class folks, who cannot afford laptops, PCs and high speed connections.

Sabina: Working for a research company that collects and analyzes data throughout the world, I believe the main issue is that data is only as valuable as the ability to analyze it and draw valid conclusions from it. This is not something to be taken lightly. Good data analysis requires a certain level of knowledge and skills. It is quite easy to misinterpret data if they are analyzed improperly. You correctly point out that those in a position to mine data generally have the resources to do so, putting open data at risk of furthering inequalities of access to information and knowledge. I would argue that the open data movement needs to be coupled with an "open data analysis" movement - that is, facilitating systems or funding that help citizens to find what they need in these datasets. I would be very interested in discussing this issue with other interested parties to see what sorts of solutions might be proposed. Peter Goldstein: [email protected]

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