Beware openwashing. Question secrecy. Acknowledge ideology.

You could spend a long day listing all of the organizations or individuals who are putting government data online, from Carl Malamud to open government activists in Brazil, Africa or Canada. As many conversations in the public domain over the past few years have demonstrated, there are many different perspectives on what purposes “open data” should serve, often informed by what advocates intend or related to an organization or institution’s goals. For those interested, I recommend the open data seminar and associated comments highly.

When and if such data includes ratings or malpractice information about hospitals or doctors, or fees for insurance companies, transparency and accountability is an important byproduct, which in turn does have political implications. (Watch the reaction of unions or doctors’ groups to performance or claims data going online for those conflicts.)

There are people who want to see legislatures open their data, to provide more insight into those processes, and others who want to to see transit data or health data become more open, in the service of more civic utility or patient empowerment.

Other people may support publishing more information about the business or performance of government because evidence of fraud, mismanagement or incompetence will support their arguments for shrinking the size of the state. A big tent for open government can mean that libertarians could end up supporting the same bills liberals do.

In the U.S., Govtrack.us has been making government legislative data open, despite the lack of bulk access to Thomas.gov, by “scraping.” There are many people who wish to see campaign finance data open, like the Sunlight Foundation, to show where influence and power lies in the political system. There are many members of civil society, media organizations and startups that are collecting, sharing or using open data, from OpenCorporates to OpenCongress, to Brightscope or ProPublica.

Whether anyone chooses to describe those activities as a movement is up to them — but it is indisputable that 3 years ago, a neutral observer would be hard-pressed to find an open government data platform. Now there are dozens at the national level. What matters more than their existence is what goes onto them, however, and there people have to be extremely careful about giving governments credit for just putting a “portal” online.

While the raw number of open government data platforms around the globe looks set to continue to increase in 2013 at every level of government, advocates should be wary of governments claiming “open government” victories as a result.

Since Morozov sent out that tweet, he’s published a book with a chapter that extends that critique, along with a series of New York Times op-eds, reviews, Slate debates, and a 16,000 word essay in The Baffler that explores the career and thinking of Tim O’Reilly (my publisher). Morozov’s essay catalyzed Annaleen Newitz to paraphrase and link to it at post at iO9, where Tim responded to in a comment.

While his style can distract and detract from his work — and his behavior on Twitter can be fairly characterized as contemptuous at times — the issues Morozov raises around technology and philosophy are important and deserve to be directly engaged by open government advocates, as John Wilbanks suggests.

 

 

That’s happening, slowly. Sunlight Foundation policy director John Wonderlich has also responded, quoting Morozov’s recommendations to reflect out how he might specific uses of technology that support open government. Wilbanks himself has written one of the most effective (short) responses to date:

One of the reasons I do “open” work is that I think, in the sciences, it’s a philosophical approach that is more likely to lead to that epistemic transformation. If we have more data available about a scientific problem like climate change, or cancer, then the odds of the algorithms figuring something out that is “true” but incomprehensible to us humans go up. Sam Arbesman has written about this nicely both in his book the Half Life of Facts and in another recent Slate article.

I work for “open” not because “open” solves a specific scientific problem, but because it increases the overall probability of success in sensorism-driven science. Even if the odds of success themselves don’t change, increasing the sample size of attempts will increase the net number of successes. I have philosophical reasons for liking open as well, and those clearly cause me cognitive bias on the topic, but I deeply believe that the greatest value in open science is precisely the increased sample size of those looking.

I also tend to think there’s a truly, deeply political element to enabling access to knowledge and science. I don’t think it’s openwashing (and you should read this paper recommended by Morozov on the topic) to say that letting individuals read science can have a real political impact.

Morozov’s critique of “openwashing” isn’t specious, though it’s fair to question his depiction of the history of open source and free software and an absence of balance in his consideration of various open government efforts. Civil society and media must be extremely careful about giving governments credit for just putting a “portal” online.

On that count, Wonderlich wrote about the “missing open data policy” that every government that has stood up or will stand up an open data platform could benefit from reading:

Most newly implemented open data policies, much like the Open Government Directive, are announced along alongside a package of newly released datasets, and often new data portals, like Data.gov. In a sense, these pieces have become the standard parts of the government data transparency structure.  There’s a policy that says data should generally be open and usefully released, a central site for accessing it, some set of new data, and perhaps a few apps that demonstrate the data’s value.

Unfortunately, this is not the anatomy of an open government.  Instead, this is the anatomy of the popular open government data initiatives that are currently in favor. Governments have learned to say that data will be open, provide a place to find it, release some selected datasets, and point to its reuse.

This goes to the concerns of traditional advocates working for good government, as explored in a excellent research paper by Yu and Robinson on the ambiguity of open government and open data, along with the broader discussion you’ll find in civil society in the lead up to the Open Government Partnership, where this dynamic was the subject of much concern — and not just in the Canadian or United Kingdom context. The work exploring this dynamic by Nathaniel Heller at Global Integrity is instructive.

As I’ve written before (unrepentant self-plagiarism alert), standing up open data platforms and publishing data sets regarding services is not a replacement for a Constitution that enforces a rule of law, free and fair elections, an effective judiciary, decent schools, basic regulatory bodies or civil society, particularly if the data does not relate to meaningful aspects of society.

Socrata, a venture-capital backed startup whose technology powers the open data platforms of several city, state and federal governments, including Kenya and the United States, is also part of this ecosystem and indisputably has “skin in the game.”

That said, the insights that Kevin Merritt, the founder of Socrata, shared in post on reinventing government are worth considering:

An open Government strategy needs to include Open Data as a component of enabling transparency and engaging citizens. However, Open Government is also about a commitment to open public meetings; releasing public information in all its forms, if not proactively at least in a timely fashion; engaging the public in decision making; and it is also a general mindset, backed up by clear policy, that citizens need to be empowered with information and a voice so they can hold their government accountable.

At the same time, a good Open Data strategy should support Open Government goals, by making structured data that relates to accountability and ethics like spending data, contracts, staff salaries, elections, political contributions, program effectiveness…etc. available in machine- and human-readable formats.

The open data strategy advanced by the White House and 10 Downing Street has not embraced releasing all of those data types, although the Obama administration did follow through on the President’s promise to launch Ethics.gov.

The Obama administration has come under heavy criticism for the quality of its transparency efforts from watchdogs, political opponents and media. It’s fair to say that this White House has advanced an unprecedented effort to open up government information while it has much more of mixed record on transparency and accountability, particularly with respect to national security and a culture of secrecy around the surveillance state.

Open government advocates assert that the transparency that President Obama promised has not been delivered, as Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter at ProPublica, and Hagit Limor, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, wrote in the Washington Post. In fact, the current administration’s open data initiatives are one of the bright spots its transparency record — and that’s in the context of real data quality and cultural issues that need to be addressed to match the rhetoric of the past four years.

“Government transparency is not the same as data that can be called via an API,” said Virginia Carlson, former president of the Metro Chicago Information Center. “I think the ‘New Tech’ world forgets that — open data is a political process first and foremost, and a technology problem second.”

If we look at what’s happening with open government in Chicago, a similar dynamic seems to have emerged, as the city methodically works to release high quality open data related to services, performance or lobbying but is more resistant to media organizations pushing for more access to data about the Mayor’s negotiations or electronic communications, the traditional targets of open government advocacy. This tension was explored quite well in an article by WBEZ on the people behind Chicago’s government 2.0 efforts.

In the United States, there is a sizable group of people that believe that data created using public funds should in turn be made available to the public — and that the Internet is a highly effective place to make such data available. Such thinking extends to open access to research or public sector code, too.

As those policy decisions are implemented, asking hard questions about data quality, use, licenses, outcomes and cost is both important and useful, particularly given that motivations and context will differ from country to country and from industry to civil society.

Who benefits and how? What existing entities are affected? Should all public data be subject to FOIA? If so, under what timelines and conditions? Should commercial entities that create or derive economic value from data pay for bulk access? What about licensing? If government goes digital, how can the poor, disabled or technically illiterate be given access and voice as well? (Answers to some of these questions are in the Sunlight Foundation’s principles of open government data, which were based on the recommendatations of an earlier working group.)

In the United Kingdom, there are also concerns that the current administrations “open data agenda” obscures a push towards privatization of public services should be more prominent in public debates, a dynamic that Morozov recently explored in the opinion pages of the New York Times. My colleague, Nat Torkington, highlighted the needs for a discussion about which services should be provided by government at Radar back in 2010:

Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community’s will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.

Whether one agrees with the side of the argument that supports investment or the other that is looking for cost-savings — or both — is something that people of democratic societies will need to debate and decide for themselves, along with the size and role of government. The politics can’t be abstracted away.

I don’t think that many open government advocates are blind to the ideologies involved, including the goals of libertarians, nor that the “open dystopia” that Newitz described at iO9 is a particularly likely outcome.

That said, given the stakes, these policies deserve to be the subject of debate in every nation whose leaders are putting them forward. We’ve never had better tools for debate, discussion and collective action. Let’s use them.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

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