Making Open Data Matter: Closing the Gap between Promise and Reality

Editor’s note: This blog post is edited from Panthea’s keynote presentation at the 2015 Canadian Open Data Summit.  

Reboot was founded on the belief that citizens should have a greater say in the policies and processes that impact their lives. Over the past few years, we’ve seen open data play an increasingly important role in realizing this vision.

Last week, I was in Tanzania during the Open Government Partnership’s Africa Regional Meeting. The Government of Tanzania recently passed new legislation that severely restricts media’s ability to publish and analyze statistics. Civil society used the meeting to express their concern with these bills, and President Kikwete directly acknowledged them: “Bad laws can be corrected, so bring your suggestions. We [the government] are ready to discuss.” This demonstrates the passion that open data inspires—access to information is gaining acceptance as a vital right—and the importance of channels through which citizens can direct that passion.

Yet in our work around the world, we see many situations where open data proponents risk missing the forest for the trees. The political change that citizens want to see through open data is not always aligned with the focus of many discussions in the open data community, which are more taken with technical concerns. Efforts are often so focused on refining the granular dimensions of open data that we lose sight of the larger ways that open data promises social change. We speak frequently about how open data can improve our interactions as members of society, but less about how it can improve society itself.

Canada also seems to be wrestling with these questions. In his morning address, Tim Davies urged us to embed open data in wider processes of change. Renee Sieber then asked, “How do we encourage more politics in open data when so much of our community wants to think of data as apolitical?” Tim’s answer was brilliant. He said, “Politics comes from first asking questions, and we can start with small-p politics.” Indeed, it’s remarkable to see how examining and working with government datasets has politicized a new group of people.

Throughout the Open Data Summit, I heard many questions about whether our collective efforts have had much of an impact on how our country works. And I sensed the general consensus answer is, “Not yet.” If that’s true, then before we move forward with defining technical standards and collaboration mechanisms, we must first ask how we can achieve the impact we desire. Otherwise, coming to common technical solutions may be premature, and in some cases may ossify practices that run counter to our larger goals.

I was honored to share the stage at the Open Data Summit with Minister Tony Clement. Under his leadership, the Canadian government has made great strides in advancing open data to make Canadian enterprise and government more efficient and effective, and to make citizens’ day-to-day lives easier. In terms of datasets released, Canada is leading the world. The government has not only built a data repository, it has helped build a community around open data and shown willingness to listen to that community.

Beyond its borders, Canada has invested in supporting open data in developing countries and in international efforts. The country has committed over $20 million to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to promote greater transparency and accountability in natural resources extraction, an industry that comprises 20 percent of Canada’s GDP.

And we’re seeing the results of Canada’s investment pay off. CODE 2015 was a great event that demonstrated the potential of open data by gathering developers for a 48-hour code sprint of building apps to make government data available and usable for ordinary citizens, helping answer questions such as: How can I make healthier food choices in my neighbourhood? How can we help youth make informed career decisions?

These are important questions. Yet both in preparing for this event and in speaking with many of you in the sessions and breaks, I sensed that the Canadian public is grappling with other, tougher questions that open data may be able to help answer.

open data word cloud

This word cloud is from an 184-person consultation done by the Government of Canada that asked citizens to describe their interest in open government. As we can see, beyond economic growth, citizens also want more access to and engagement with government. They want a greater say in the decisions that impact their families and communities.

To that end, perhaps we could use open data help answer questions such as: How do private corporations and their lobbyists influence where my tax dollars go? How might civic discourse around public health and environmental concerns be influenced by restrictions on government scientists speaking to media? And why, despite its investment in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, is Canada not a participating country? Why is it instead offering Canadian mining companies another, independent path for financial disclosure that does not comply with the international standards it helped define?

It strikes me that as individual citizens, we are asking systemic, macro-level questions; but as an open-data community, we are largely pursuing incremental, micro-level change.

If we believe that open data can enable more informed, vibrant democratic dialogue, then it is our responsibility to help facilitate such dialogue.

First, as individuals who work in government, or technology, or civil society, or in another capacity as advocates for open data, we can do so by thinking politically, even when acting technically. We can use our positions as technical experts to facilitate critical conversations about broader policy. The field of open data is new, and many of us are figuring out how to do things for the first time. The processes and standards we define will have impact far beyond our individual projects and careers. Thus, we must ensure our values of transparency and collaboration go beyond technical protocol and are embedded in every aspect of the efforts we are involved in.

After the revolution in Libya, my firm developed the country’s first digital voter registration and elections management platform. In the process, we tackled with many thorny technical questions relating to data flow, data security, and data release, but in the process, we and our Government of Libya counterparts were also wrestling with what it means to govern in a newly democratic state. We were defining what a 21st century social contract looks like when it comes to citizen data and government transparency.

I know many of you are working on similar technical challenges, and as you do so, I urge you to keep in mind what the technical protocol we define today may mean for the our governance structures and processes in the future.

Second, we need to think about how our work can empower citizens to act politically, too. As we saw earlier, citizens are already thinking politically; we need to make it easier for them to act on their convictions. We need to design targeted, effective feedback loops between citizens and government.

One platform which does this very well is POPVOX,  which was founded by my friend Marci Harris. Citizens log on and identify the issues that are important to them, and POPVOX lets them know when relevant policy conversations or legislation are happening and provides them a channel to share their views with their elected representatives.  It enables citizens to participate in the democratic process at the specific moments when their voices will have the greatest impact. As you can see from the testimonials, users are happy: “I know that when I express my opinion on an issue, my legislators will receive it in a timely manner, not as a junk mail ‘petition,’ but as a relevant communication from a verified constituent.”

Going back to the CODE apps, one of them asked: How can I make healthier food choices in my neighbourhood? To this community, I ask: What data can we provide citizens to contextualize the answers they get? Perhaps we can provide data about how the national meat, dairy, and egg lobbies have been able to influence Canada’s Food Guide to increase the recommended servings of their industry’s products. Or we can provide a way for citizens to generate their own data so that the choices they get aren’t just those from Starbucks, KFC, White Spot, and other Big Food corporations?

Finally, as we push for open data to be a priority, we need to act with empathy for governments. As Demond Drummer said, “We need to help technologists understand the slow, lumbering process of democracy.”

I recently had a conversation with a Treasury Board employee who was frustrated because he felt that his hard, day-to-day work to advance open data had been overshadowed by recent controversies over the cancellation of the compulsory long-form census. While he was sympathetic to the criticisms, he noted that the decision was above his pay-grade. Getting criticized for something that was out of his hands felt unfair, and impacted his motivation to work on the issues that were within his control.

When I first started in this field, I often assumed malintent when a policy wasn’t properly implemented. I thought that politicians just issued nice-sounding statements to gain political support. Over the years, I’ve learned that while this is sometimes the case, the implementation gap can often be traced back to poor planning. Many implementing officials or agencies are left holding the bag when they never received sufficient political cover, budget, or human capacity.

This perspective has given me more empathy for government. Deeply understanding how government works is important for aligning our work with strategic priorities, and for designing new avenues to accelerate open data that are both creative and feasible. In our work with the Government of Mexico, we’ve seen our counterparts very successfully wield the Open Government Partnership to establish the political authority for many innovative initiatives. It provides both incentive and cover for civil servants to experiment. We’ve used ethnographic research to ground our evaluation and advisory work. Doing so helped us identify the ‘sweet spots’ of political significance for a new initiative, integrate with existing bureaucratic timelines and processes, and navigate channels for institutional change both formal and informal.

It has been an honor to be here at the Open Data Summit, and it is clear that the value of this community is its power to organize around a shared vision. There has been robust, successful action around technical goals. It is time to tackle our political aspirations and to reconcile the concerns we have as citizens with the work we are doing as professionals.


Photo: Flickr user nicmcphee

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