Archive for June, 2010

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Open Data and the Enfranchisement of Society

June 23, 2010

If you didn’t know it Open Data is the biggest game in town. It offers to solve society’ ills, make us all rich and fix corruption in government, as the universal panacea it has a lot going for it. Modern technologised societies exist on data. It is the lifeblood that courses through the veins of every institution, creating the foundation and evidence of action.

As individuals in our modern technologised society we are our own personal data firehouse. The choices that we make and the places we go create a digital footprint that is accumulated, tabulated and interpreted by public bodies and private enterprise alike.

The opening up of publically held datasets has the potential to reengage citizens who have become disenfranchised by the process of government. This relationship between the state and populace is seen to be at an all time low, creating issues around legitimacy and governance. The disconnect between citizen and state has been fuelled by perceived corruption such as the UK parliamentary expenses scandal, dubious press representation – climate change and the Congestion Charge and conspiracy through perceived cover ups and lack of access to information or information that is thought to exist but doesn’t.

Open data allows people to see and interpret the underlying data informing the decision making process; allowing the potential for a meaningful and equitable dialogue. Instead of passive citizens, interested parties can hold policy makers to account. By allowing scrutiny potential corruption and perceived corruption can be overcome. The Daily Telegraph uncovered a closed dataset that concealed the MPs expenses leading to the 1995 elected parliament being dubbed ‘The Rotten Parliament’. If the information was publically available it could be assumed that the environment for the misuse and concealment of expenses may never of been created, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

The London Congestion charge is widely seen as being a success. It has removed unnecessary vehicular movement within the centre of London and encouraged people to use other modes of transport. It didn’t create the economic catastrophe for business that was predicted and Central London is perceived to be a more pleasant place for it. For such a successful policy, it would seem to be done deal for other cities to follow suit. But as Manchester found out with its own TIF charging scheme this was not to be the case. If data evidencing the success of the Congestion Charge and the underlying case for similar schemes had been made available then the decision may have been different. When data is closed those that have vested interest in misinterpretation are able to act with impunity.

Opening up information in a machine readable format creates an environment for efficient sharing of information across public bodies. By conceptually changing the notion of data ownership from being departmental to public you reduce the need for separate departmental infrastructure. Many public policies cut across departments and so efficiencies are apparent. Since 2004 Washington DC has been developing its open data policies with much value coming from the creation of internal systems that can use the real-time and aggregated data the city creates. Track DC is a dashboard that allows departmental budgets, key performance indicators and projects to be tracked across all 86 agencies in the district government. This standardised dashboard allows differing departments to coordinate and collaborate more efficiently.

Open Data has reached a critical period in its adoption, a perfect storm of circumstances has propelled it onto the public agenda. It can be argued that had we not entered into a period of uncertainty brought about by the collapse of financial institutions coupled with a deteriorating belief in the mechanisms of scrutiny and the inevitable distrust in government, open data would not be so highly placed. It offers the mechanism for a more engaged populace by creating the environment for evidence based policy making. The public having access to the same information as the politicians can view the process and logic of governance. Through the enhanced power of scrutiny the electorate can hold the public bodies that do their bidding to account.

Reconnecting and accountability offers the reduction of the systems that would keep the information in silos and the people who are paid to maintain them. In a time where money is at a premium and politicians of all colours have to decide where to make politically difficult budgetary decisions, the savings that can be made through remodelling of information systems is logical and politically expedient. Cutting an IT budget and the job losses created is more appealing than the reduction in front line services. The job cuts and savings are potentially huge. But this reduction in the IT sector offers the potential for those effected to be at forefront of creating the applications and methodologies that will allow individuals and institutions to interpret released data.

Very few people have the skills, time and inclination to digest this deluge of information. Conceptually releasing data is seen as a good thing to do, but if people and organisations lack the power to filter and interpret then the situation could be worse than when information was held in closed systems. Information is a resource and our ability to make decisions that will have a beneficial impact on our lives and working practises creates a value. Simplistically anything that has value has demand and demand leads to the creation of mechanisms to exploit that value. Open Data offers a myriad of opportunity for organisations and individuals that want to exploit the new data terrain, whether it be for commercial, civic or private gain. As an indicator of demand for data, repositories of dormant applications waiting for the open data flow exist. CityGoRound.org lists 130 transport applications in waiting. Most are built to exploit the information of a particular locality but with open data modification to any locality that provides the same information is a relatively simple affair.

This ability to create applications and architecture allowing different localities to be accessed in a standardised way offers a glimpse of a future where individual cities can be accessed and interpreted in the same way. Where potentially we become citizens of the concept of city rather than a geographical city. Several US cities are exploring the potential of an Open City API where no matter which city you are in, you can access information and service the way that you choose using your technology of choice by agreeing to work in this way cities

The vision of the open data world appeals as it offers us ways that will enable us to understand the places we inhabit. It creates the potential for easier and more efficient ways of working and interaction. But this techno-deterministic view is flawed. It presupposes that all have access, or the ability to act on this information. Technology costs and although most have computers many do not. We need to fundamentally think how we create the environment where all citizens can participate and act on open data. If the open data experiment is to succeed, serious thought needs to be done to enable people to act intelligently with the choices that are presented to them. If this doesn’t happen the potential for reengaging civil society will be lost and the digital divide will be maintained and could be widened.

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