michael gurstein on Tue, 5 Jul 2011 23:17:06 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Are the Open Data Warriors Fighting for Robin Hood or the Sheriff?: Some Reflections on OKCon 2011 and the Emerging Data Divide

(Original Blogpost with links and extensive reader comments can be found at

I spent the last couple of days at a fascinating (and frightening) event in
Berlin-OKCon-a convention for the (in this case mostly European) uber-geeks
who are in the process of recreating governments and potentially governance
itself in Western Europe (and beyond).

The ideal that these nerdy revolutionaries are pursuing is not, as with
previous generations-justice, freedom, democracy-rather it is "openness" as
in Open Data, Open Information, Open Government. Precisely what is meant by
"openness" is never (at least certainly not in the context of this
conference) really defined in a form that an outsider could grapple with
(and perhaps critique).  Rather it was a pervasive and animating good
intention-a grail to be pursued by these World of Warcraft warriors off on a
joust with various governmental dragons. Their armaments in this instance
(and to an outsider many of them are magical indeed) are technical skills
and zeal sufficient to slay any bureaucrat or resistant politician's
rationalizations and resistances to being "open"-i.e. not turning their
information treasure chests into universally accessible nodes in a seamless
global datascape.

If I seem a bit skeptical/cynical - less than true believing - its not
because I don't believe in this goal of "openness" (who could be churlish
enough to support things that are closed-closed systems, closed doors,
closed minds-you get the picture), its just that I see a huge disconnect
between the idealism and the passionate belief in the rightness of their
cause and the profound failure to have any clear idea of what precisely that
cause is and where it is likely to take them (and us) in the very near

To start at the beginning. the "open data/open government" movement begins
from a profoundly political perspective that government is largely
ineffective and inefficient (and possibly corrupt) and that it hides that
ineffectiveness and inefficiency (and possible corruption) from public
scrutiny through lack of transparency in its operations and particularly in
denying to the public access to information (data) about its operations. And
further that this access once available would give citizens the means to
hold bureaucrats (and their political masters) accountable for their
actions. In doing so it would give these self-same citizens a platform on
which to undertake (or at least collaborate with) these bureaucrats in
certain key and significant activities-planning, analyzing, budgeting that
sort of thing. Moreover through the implementation of processes of
crowdsourcing this would also provide the bureaucrats with the overwhelming
benefits of having access to and input from the knowledge and wisdom of the
broader interested public.

Put in somewhat different terms but with essentially the same meaning-it's
the taxpayer's money and they have the right to participate in overseeing
how it is spent. Having "open" access to government's data/information gives
citizens the tools to exercise that right.

And (it is argued), solutions are available for putting into the hands of
these citizens the means/technical tools for sifting and sorting and making
critical analyses of government activities if only the key could be turned
and government data was "accessible" ("open").

Through partially technical and partially political processes of persuasion,
lobbying, arm twisting and ultimately policy development and intervention,
governments everywhere are in the process of redeveloping internal technical
systems so as to make at least some of their information available -opening
this to the folks such as those attending this conference to work on and
design means to make useful and accessible.-and the conference heard from
enthusiastic young people who are effecting these changes in various parts
of Europe, the US, Brazil and so on.

A lot of the conference took place in specialized workshops where the
technical details on how to link various sets of this newly available data
together with other sets, how to structure this data so that it could serve
various purposes and perhaps most importantly how to design the architecture
and ontology (ultimately the management policies and procedures) of the data
itself within government so that it is "born open" rather than only
liberated after the fact with this latter process making the usefulness of
the data in the larger world of open and universally accessible data much
much greater.

Again, so far so good. But as I sat through the first day of the conference
and as the time came for my own presentation I suddenly realized that there
was a dog, and a very large and important dog that wasn't barking. During
that first day and with only one or two exceptions on the second what I
didn't hear even indirectly was a discussion of who the ultimate users would
be of this data (the beneficiaries of this "openness") and what ultimate
uses this open data was being designed towards.

Some might wonder why I think that this non-barking dog is of such
significance-why does it matter who the user is-what is important is that
they/we have access to the data and the best approach is to effect a design
that "anyone" can use i.e. for a universal user-the argument being that what
is being built is not a vehicle but a platform and it doesn't matter who the
drivers are as long as everyone can use the highway.

So, in the absence of any articulated expression of who the (assumed) user
is let's speculate a bit about who this phantom figure might (or might not)
be.  Given that in instances like these one tends, in the absence of other
influences, to default to the known and familiar. Thus here one can almost
certainly assume that the user is expected to be more or less like the folks
in this room-young and bright, speaking English well, very well educated,
overwhelmingly male, few or no minorities of colour or race, with firm
middle class backgrounds, very very technically skilled and with the set of
values and assumptions that go with the above i.e. strongly individualistic,
slightly competitive, and not suffering fools (or the non-technical) easily.

My assumption then is that the anticipated user for this "open data" and for
the kind of measures (policies, procedures, programs) which are being
lobbied for and designed into government policy and practice looks very much
like these folks at this conference-which scares me a very great
deal.especially when combined with the VERY fragmentary evidence that is
coming out on who is actually using this "open data" (which corresponds
quite closely to my assumption) and what benefits are being realized as a
result of its use.

Perhaps the most significant example to date of a national "openness" policy
is the Government of India's Right to Information law which by any standard
is one of the strongest pieces of legislation supporting "open" government
anywhere in the world. But it turns out that there were  flaws (and it
appears quite fatal flaws) in the legislation/program that are now coming to
light-the most significant of those flaws being a lack of enforcement
mechanisms and perhaps most importantly the lack of a strategy for
widespread broad based implementation focused on the end user.

What has happened in India is that by making the (quite false) assumption
that the end users i.e. citizens would have the means to use this law to
realize their right to information without additional support or
intervention India has created a circumstance where citizens themselves need
to engage in an often quite unequal struggle to access and use the
information and the result has been a rash of murders by those wishing to
use the information to expose corruption, self-dealing and misuse of pubic

The legislation did not provide mechanisms for enforcement and thus
individuals and groups had to take it upon themselves to attempt to gain
access to desired information through individual action.  Thus rather than
having legislation that focused on the potential end user in their Indian
multitudes it simply provided for a notional "access" and left the rest to
the individual citizen with these results:

First Right to Information Murder

Another Right to Information Activist Murdered in India

Three Right to Information (RTI) activists were murdered in this country in
three months

But why should this matter to these enthusiastic young people five thousand
miles away from village India.  Well if we take a look at one of the very
few detailed studies of the end users (Escher) of an "open data" project
(and a project that has been reproduced in a number of other national
jurisdictions) that of the TheyWorkForYou.com online citizen democracy tool
we begin to see a pattern:

The overall demographics of these users extend the traditional biases in
political participation:  In the "TheyWorkForYou.org audience people above
the age of 54 tend to be over-represented, while those younger than 45 are
under-represented in comparison to the Internet population. In terms of
demographics there is a strong male bias and a strong overrepresentation of
people with a university degree that also translates into strong
participation from high income groups.One in five users (21%) of the site
has not been politically active within the last year," This means, if I am
understanding this that 79% of the users of this site (and the related
expense information) have been politically active within the last year!

So this attempt to enhance democratic participation has ended up providing
an additional opportunity for those who already, because of their income,
education, and overall conventional characteristics of higher status (age,
gender etc.) already have the means to communicate with and influence
politicians. The additional information and an additional communications
channel thus has the effect of reinforcing patterns of opportunity that are
already there rather than widening the base of participation and influence.

Similarly with the case that I quoted in an earlier post which examined the
outcome of a program to digitize land records in Bangalore and which had the
quite perverse and unanticipated effect of providing a means for the
wealthier land owners to extend their holdings and thus their wealth at the
expense of the poor because they had the knowledge in how to use the
information newly made available as well as the resources to hire the
professionals to help them interpret the information in the way which was
most immediately useful.

Thus it matters very much who the (anticipated) user is since what is being
put in place are the frameworks for the data environment  of the future and
these will include for the most part some assumptions about who the ultimate
user is or will be and whether or not a new "data divide" will emerge
written more deeply into the fabric of the Information Society than even the
earlier "digital (access) divide".

In each of these instances, by NOT paying attention to (and thus intervening
to redefine) who the ultimate users of the "open data/information" would be,
the effect has been to reinforce or even extend existing structures of power
and influence rather than to have this newly open data be the basis for more
inclusive and democratic participation. In the absence of making explicit
the model of the ultimate user and thus designing appropriate processes of
opening the data and making it available for the widest (and least
implicitly discriminatory) range of users, the result will be as we have
seen which is a user who is already in a position to make use of the
information because of prior existing skills, knowledge, power, or status.

For these processes to NOT have these outcomes the data designer must base
his work on an implicit model of user who is NOT technically skilled, who is
NOT financially well off, who does NOT have the characteristics of colour,
gender or class which automatically gives them influence and power.

I've dealt with the matter of how to ensure opportunities for a broader base
of effective use (and users) elsewhere but in this context as a
recommendation to the folks espousing and doing Open Data could I suggest
that there be a formal commitment to devote 10% of project (and programme)
resources including time and funds to ensuring Open Data use by groups and
individuals who are not technically skilled, are not middle income and
above, who are not currently active in the political process but who might
ultimately make the most beneficial use of the resources now being made

For anyone interested in my thoughts on the "hot to's" of this I can refer
them to the earlier blog post  http://wp.me/pJQl5-3b and edited version of
which appeared in a recent issue of First Monday

Michael Gurstein
Vancouver, July 2, 2011

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