The problem with Open Data

Although clearly a good thing in theory, Open Data risks increasing the digital divide and social inequality unless approached right.

Recent initiatives have dramatically increased the range of previously “closed” data being made “open” by the government, including data sets on travel, weather and healthcare. This data can then be used by anyone to create great new products, business opportunities and community services.

Although clearly “a good thing” in theory, in practice Open Data is more likely to increase the digital divide and socially inequality than it is to reduce it, unless we approach the subject critically.

There is a clear and compelling case that information produced at public expense should be made open and freely available to benefit the public. However simply declaring data sets to be open does not, in itself, make it of any practical use to the public.

When released in its raw form, data is not open to the public in any meaningful sense. It is only open to a small elite of technical specialists who know how to interpret and use it, as well as to those that can afford to employ them. Providing open data uncritically in this way is therefore likely only to further advantage already privileged groups. There is a real danger of adding a new “data divide” on top of existing digital and economic divides.

As masters in the art of misdirection, magicians use dramatic flourishes to divert our gaze from what is really going on backstage. When politicians now trumpet a new-found fondness for transparency, the sceptic in me suspects a sleight of hand.

Does Open Data, as practiced by government, genuinely serve the public interest, or are we being beguiled by political PR and media spin?

I believe that two things need to happen to steer Open Data away from a reality where the primary benefits are PR for politicians and to those employing graduate data technicians, towards an Open Data that prioritises public benefit.

First, data needs to be made easy-to-use (or actionable) and second, public awareness and training needs to take place to enable communities to apply data to solve local problems.

Governments should be required to release data in actionable formats conforming to open data standards - and to be fair there is already progress in this regard. But comparatively little is being done at community level to promote the re-use of public data for public benefit. Almost nothing is being done to create capacity within communities to interpret and apply open data themselves, without creating technical dependencies. This is essential work that can perhaps be enabled by the proposed Public Data Corporation?

Improving the ability of community members to transform local service delivery is key objective 7.6 in the Cabinet Office public consultation document Opening Up Government. No adequate provision has yet been made to engage with community organisations to create public benefit from public data.

The government consultation document quite rightly says, “Providing wider online access to medical and educational records will enable service design and delivery to be changed radically, reducing cost and improving quality… [and] …create a platform for more informed public debate. This in turn means the public is better equipped to hold local, and central, government to account”.

These are objectives that we can all support and which require an integrated approach that goes beyond PR and grapples with the relatively messy business of community engagement and training to ensure that ordinary people know what data exists and how best to use it.

To truly give “users more power to self-serve” as Opening Up Government suggests, we need to motivate public engagement by creating awareness of great initiatives like

Making data open is not enough to realise these goals. It is necessary to make data actionable in open standard formats; but this too is insufficient. To maximise the public benefit derived from public data we must raise community awareness about the potentials of open data and develop the practical skills and capacities so that those potentials are realised in practice.

The only sustainable basis for delivering public benefit from public data is to motivate and enable communities themselves to innovate local service provision, social enterprise and job creation.

If we fail to achieve this then we are certain to exacerbate already growing social inequalities by adding a new data divide to existing economic and digital divides.

Tony Roberts (pictured) is the founder and former CEO of UK international development charity Computer Aid International. He is an expert on the use of technology to support international development programmes and healthcare and education in developing countries.


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