- A talk given at the Open Data Institute.
“Sometimes it sounds like open data will give us all super powers. Do the forces of transparency & accountability rank alongside invulnerability & X-ray vision? Or are there other, more day-to-day capacities that citizens need before they can unlock the potential of open data to change the world?"
Clearly, I wrote that intro with the intention of saying "no, open data alone won't change much".
Actually I've come to the conclusion that open data can give us superpowers, but maybe not in the way we think...
- First, let's ask: why are we looking for superheroes? Maybe it's not so surprising. Institutions have lost credibility – journalists, MPs, the police, the banks; a sense of corruption is everywhere. It's not just financial but ethical; there's a sense of a total loss of integrity. We need a sense of hope. Something that can sort things out.
- And along comes the open data movement. It starts with the idea that government is largely ineffective and inefficient (and possibly corrupt), and claims this can be corrected by transparency and consequent accountability. As a bonus, it implies that open data will provide a a platform to collaborate with government through crowdsourcing etc in ways that will help overcome the democratic deficit.
Openness may be a good thing. I certainly think so. But it's not on the same plane as values like fairness, equality, justice. In fact, if we stop at openness, we may open the door to more exploitation not less!
Take the example of the digitisation of land records in Bangalore (quoted in Gurstein). When the data was made openly accessible, it wasn't the poor who used it to hold the landowners accountable. Rather, those who had the resources to mobilise technical and legal skills (the landowners) used the data to spot gaps and consolidate their monoplies.
- So openness may also be used by big players to hammer small ones. Is that why the broad coalition around open data includes big outsourcing companies? Let's be wary; the flag of openness can be a false flag. Look at what happened with the assimilation of the green movement in to corporate PR & spin. We may see an evolution from from greenwashing to opendatawashing.
- So already our superheroes start to look more like Alan Moore's Watchmen; morally compromised, sometimes complicit with Power, imperfectly struggling to do the right thing....
- There's something missing in the chain of change between open data and justice. Perhaps it's the capabilities of the less powerful; as Michel Gurstein says;
"For these processes to NOT have these outcomes the data designer must base his work on an implicit model of a 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".
- Or perhaps it's the linkage between transparency and accountability. In his recent UCLA Law Review paper The Uncertain Relationship Between Open Data and Accountability Tiago Peixoto says “I contend that the authors ignore the enabling conditions under which transparency may lead to accountability, notably the publicity and political agency conditions.”
- But i'll make a different point; not that there's a gap, but that transparency isn't the point!
- To explain what I mean, I'm going to invoke Michel Foucault. One of his insights was that power doesn't produce ideological illusions to distract us from a raw reality (an authentic underlying truth), but produces knowledges and apparatuses of knowledge. In other words, it produces truths.
Think of this as a window. There is nothing to see through. There's no transparency because there's no 'raw truth' in the data given to us, just a machine that's producing subjectivities for us. Data from the system is part of producing our subject positions.
The open data we have is produced by what Foucault defined as a dispositif:
"a heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.
(Foucault, as quoted in 'Governmental Topologies of Database Devices' by Evelyn Ruppert)
- I'm saying that if we are interested in justice and freedom, we need to produce our own data and our own subjectivities. How the heck do we start to do that?
- I'll start with something I know; Social Innovation Camp. We run rapid prototyping events that create ways to help solve social problems. It works, sometimes, and that's good. But what it's also an example of is the production of positions outside the hegemonic narrative, outside the dominant story. By running an open call for ideas it participates in the creation of publics, in the way described by John Dewey:
“In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey presents a public as a confederation of bodies, bodies pulled together not so much by choice (a public is not exactly a voluntary association) as by a shared experience of harm that, over time, coalesces into a 'problem'.”