A new proactive transparency? Open Data and Access to Information: Promises and Challenges

(Post previously published in Spanish here/ Post previamente posteado en Espanol aqui)

What’s the link between open data and access to information?  That was a recent question a civil servant asked me recently in Montevideo, Uruguay, during the course of my research.

The lack of connection that exists between activists working in both communities (and that was very well researched in this report from Access Info and the Open Knowledge Foundation), prevents realising the issue.  This civil servant was really interested in how this new evolution would affect the relationship between citizens and the State.

The key connection, and it is not always explicit, between open data, and access to information is placed in the so called duties of proactive transparency that generally Freedom of Information Laws impose on States and that actually mandate to publish certain categories of information proactively, in an easy and accessible way, so citizens can benefit from it. A good example of proactive transparency duties can be found in the Chilean law here( í)

Nevertheless, this regulation was designed in times of “analogic” government, and in the e-government and open data age, there are at least three things that proactive transparency duties do not cover:

a) Databases

b) That data should be provided in reusable and non-proprietary formats

c) Information should be available online for everyone to use with no restrictions and should be reliable.

In the UK, a new debate has emerged around a new concept   (“right to data”) , a proposal that seems is going to be approved by the Government. The other side of the right to data, is actually the provision of information by the State under it’s proactive transparecy duties. Having said this, not many States world-wide actually do their “homework” in terms of active transparency, which is proably the reason behind UK activists trying to actually establish a right to data.

So, do we need a law promoting open data? Not really, at least  not at this stage. In the case of the  Intendencia de Montevideo  actually shows that is possible to establish an open data policy, with political will and good policy advice. Actually their policy nicely links the concept of access to information and open data. If you set the principles in the stone in may actually backfire, particularly if you are trying out new thing. Having said this the lack of clear rules of the game, is not very helpful as a recent incident in Argentina showed. The website  Gasto publico bahiense, which develops a very good job mapping the public spenditure of Bahia Blanca, could not keep functioning due to the government use of a technology called “capcha”  (to put it simply is a way of checking if a human is behind the screen)  and the developer behind the website had to redesign it. The whole story can be seen here  (í).

Misunderstandings not only happen in Argentina, also in the UK can be found where a developer used budget data to build a website on transparency and in this process , he turned the data into non reusable formats, preventing others to use and reuse the data. The story can be found in Chris Taggart‘s blog, and while the incident was finally resolved, it is an example that sometimes rules of engagement are not clear.

Open Data is actually a way to structure information provision from the State to the citizens, which also generates changes in the way information is used by the citizenry. Nobody has to “ask”, in principle, to use public information, as data is supposed to be available so people can use it and reuse it to smart things with it. If we go back to Montevideo there are currently two initiatives GxBus y AcaVamos   which are based on data provided by Montevideo Local Government. But if you have data about other public issues, the sky is the limit, the only thing you really need are good ideas.

Obviously the relationship between citizens and the State is mediated by a new group of actors, which are often called informediaries, who actually make information usable and add value. Infomediaries do face the same challenges that other more traditional  intermediaries between citizens and the state. What is really new about them is the potential they have to create social capital, through ICTs.

And what challenges  States ( in particular Latin American ones) do face in this new scenario?

There are two main areas where are challenges ahead: policy formulation and management of open data policies.

In terms of management, all public administrations  face problems in terms of archiving and managing information. Public Servants, due to the set of incentives their organization have, are not very keen on sharing information (even among them). Latin American administrations (and some Europeans) are very keen on “personalizing” information (namely, some public servants actually have the information and when they leave, everything is lost). Depending on the degree of privatisation that States endured during the 90’s some information could be actually in hands of private providers, and should not necessarily be public, according to the current rules. And last, but not least, not all government have a central agency or nodal point where they can actually do the policy formulation in terms technology and transparency, so state capacity may just not be there.

In terms of the policies themselves there are a set of issues to debate   What licences around use and reuse of data should be established? Should the administration charge for public information? Another issue is about the technical standard around information provision. Should we promote the adoption of an  RDF,  standard in line of  what Tim Berners Lee, has proposed to promote a semantic web ? ¿ Or should we just let the government publish information and see how the users cope with that?  Some of these issues were addressed by Patrick Dunleavy and his team in this book ,  and while I do not fully agree with it, it is worth reading.

In this post  ( and in this article )  I tried to make it clear that there is an area where transparency, access to information intellectual propriety and technology are actually coming together. I would like to avoid academic definitions (go for the article if you fancy them) but it’s time to understand that transparency is going beyond the fishbowl, where actors could only see what is happening. Transparency is becoming something more, in order to allow actors to move from a voyeuristic approach to active participants and decision makers in government processes. Transparency is not longer only about seeing, but enabling others to use information. How this will happen, is yet to be seen. The start is hopeful.

Related issues: After this post was written originally in Spanish, there are reports of Open Data activists trying to distance concepts such as Open Data and FOI, which are, in my view are issues very  well interlinked.

Post  based on a presentation for   ECPR panel on “Information Governance. Part of it was possible thanks to my participation at the  OKFN Berlin y  and my participation in the FirstGlobal Transparency Conference in New York, where I presented papers with  Silvana Fumega.

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