On the ambiguity of open government and open data

A new paper on “The New Ambiguity of ‘Open Government’” by Princeton scholars David Robinson and Harlan Yu is essential reading on the state of open government and open data in 2012. As the Cato Institute’s Jim Harper noted in a post about the new paper and open government data this morning, “paying close attention to language can reveal what’s going on in the world around you.”

From the abstract:

“Open technologies involve sharing data over the Internet, and all kinds of governments can use them, for all kinds of reasons. Recent public policies have stretched the label “open government” to reach any public sector use of these technologies. Thus, “open government data” might refer to data that makes the government as a whole more open (that is, more transparent), but might equally well refer to politically neutral public sector disclosures that are easy to reuse, but that may have nothing to do with public accountability. Today a regime can call itself “open” if it builds the right kind of web site—even if it does not become more accountable or transparent. This shift in vocabulary makes it harder for policymakers and activists to articulate clear priorities and make cogent demands.

This essay proposes a more useful way for participants on all sides to frame the debate: We separate the politics of open government from the technologies of open data. Technology can make public information more adaptable, empowering third parties to contribute in exciting new ways across many aspects of civic life. But technological enhancements will not resolve debates about the best priorities for civic life, and enhancements to government services are no substitute for public accountability.”

Yu succinctly explained his thinking in two more tweets:

While it remains to be seen whether the Open Knowledge Foundation will be “open” to changing the “Open Data Handbook” to the “Adaptable Data Handbook,” Yu and Robinson are after something important here.

There’s good reason to be careful about celebrating the progress in cities, states and counties are making in standing up open government data platforms. Here’s an excerpt from a post on open government data on Radar last year:

Open government analysts like Nathaniel Heller have raised concerns about the role of open data in the Open Government Partnership, specifically that:

“… open data provides an easy way out for some governments to avoid the much harder, and likely more transformative, open government reforms that should probably be higher up on their lists. Instead of fetishizing open data portals for the sake of having open data portals, I’d rather see governments incorporating open data as a way to address more fundamental structural challenges around extractives (through maps and budget data), the political process (through real-time disclosure of campaign contributions), or budget priorities (through online publication of budget line-items).”

Similarly, Greg Michener has made a case for getting the legal and regulatory “plumbing” for open government right in Brazil, not “boutique Gov 2.0” projects that graft technology onto flawed governance systems. Michener warned that emulating the government 2.0 initiatives of advanced countries, including open data initiatives:

“… may be a premature strategy for emerging democracies. While advanced democracies are mostly tweaking and improving upon value-systems and infrastructure already in place, most countries within the OGP have only begun the adoption process.”

Michener and Heller both raise bedrock issues for open government in Brazil and beyond that no technology solution in of itself will address. They’re both right: Simply opening up data 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.

Heller and Michener speak for an important part of the open government community and surely articulate concerns that exist for many people, particularly for a “good government” constituency whose long term, quiet work on government transparency and accountability may not be receiving the same attention as shinier technology initiatives.

Harper teased out something important on that count: “There’s nothing wrong with open government data, but the heart of the government transparency effort is getting information about the functioning of government. I think in terms of a subject-matter trio—deliberations, management, and results—data about which makes for a more open, more transparent government. Everything else, while entirely welcome, is just open government data.”

This new paper will go a long way to clarifying and teasing out those issues.

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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