The Ironic Ambiguity of Openness - Part One
Attendees at November 2014 the launch of the Open Government Partnership in Northern Ireland.

The Ironic Ambiguity of Openness - Part One

25 November 2014

Here in the first part of a two part blog guest blog we hear from OGP and #OpenGovNI member David McBurney talks about the different definitions of 'openness' and how the Voluntary Community and Social Enterprise Sectors can work with government. 

"Information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both." - Pres. James Madison, August 4, 1822

"We want to be the most open and transparent government in the world" - David Cameron, 2010

It's not just dead presidents and Tory politicians that think openness and transparency are good for democracy. Senior government officials and campaigners from about 60 countries gathered in London last year for the second annual summit of the Open Government Partnership agree.

The Partnership announced voluntary commitments on increased political transparency, and planned talks about freedom of information, civic participation, whistleblower protection and corporate accountability.

Speaking just ahead of the summit meeting, Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, recruited that great enabler of the free flow of knowledge Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, to endorse the coalition of nations.

"Once people see the advantages of transparency," Maude claimed, "the democratic impetus for open government will be irresistible and there will be no turning back".

But what exactly do we mean when we talk about 'open government' and 'transparency'?

Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman. But who's going to feel the heat? And do we get to decide where we point our torch lights?

What are the benefits of this new openness? More to the point, who will benefit from it?

Maybe we'll see what information the NSA and GCHQ are collecting; and what data telecommunications companies are handing over.

Or, closer to home, perhaps we'll discover: who funds our local political parties, what they’re spending their expenses on, what they said at the Haas Talks and what they’re saying at their latest round of meetings about the future of Northern Ireland?

No. OK, let's be realistic - it's more about access to data, digital innovation and the knowledge economy. Isn't it?

Well, it depends on who you talk to. And because the concepts of 'openness' and 'transparency' are, ironically, a little ambiguous in this context, it's up to you to decide.

Open Data

If it's primarily about access to data, information and knowledge, then the appropriately named Open Knowledge Foundation can provide a definition and full details on the requirements for ‘open’ data and content.

Open data are the building blocks of open knowledge. Open knowledge is what open data becomes when it’s useful, usable and used.

The key features of openness are:

Availability and Access: the data must be available as a whole, and at no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably by downloading over the internet. It must be available in a convenient and modifiable form.

Reuse and Redistribution: the data must be provided under terms that permit reuse and redistribution including the intermixing with other datasets. The data must be machine-readable.

Universal participation: everyone must be able to use, reuse and redistribute — there should be no discrimination against fields of endeavour or against persons or groups.

According to the Open Knowledge Foundation, there are many kinds of open data that have potential uses and applications:

Cultural: Data about cultural works and artifacts.

Science: Data that is produced as part of scientific research.

Finance: Data such as government accounts and information on financial markets.

Statistics: Data produced by statistical offices such as the census and key socioeconomic indicators.

Weather: The many types of information used to understand and predict the weather and climate.

Environment: Information related to the natural environment such as the presence and level of pollutants.

Transport: Data such as timetables, routes, on-time statistics

Why should data be open?

The answer, of course, depends somewhat on the type of data. However, there are common reasons such as:

Transparency: In a well-functioning, democratic society citizens need to know what their government is doing. To do that, they must be able freely to access government data and information and to share that information with other citizens. Transparency isn’t just about access; it is about sharing and reuse.

Releasing social and commercial value: In a digital age, data is a key resource for social and commercial activities. By opening up data, government can help drive the creation of innovative business and services that deliver social and commercial value.

Participation and engagement: Much of the time citizens are only able to engage with their own governance sporadically — maybe just at an election every 4 or 5 years. By opening up data, citizens are enabled to be much more directly informed and involved in decision-making. This is more than transparency: it’s not just about knowing what is happening in the process of governance, it’s about being able to contribute to it.

Even this open data idea raises a few questions:

Does the fact that data have been published on-line constitute a success even if the data are rarely used?

Does opening government data really empower individual citizens?

Will we need an army of intermediary organisations with the appropriate technical expertise and intellectual resources to meet the challenge of rendering the raw data interpretable?

The assumption is that if government puts data online, someone somewhere will do something valuable and innovative with it. But just because data is 'open' it doesn't mean that all social groups have equal opportunity to utilise it.

So far the focus has been on the role of large technology companies and governments as the catalysts of technology-enabled progress.

How do open data initiatives that are seemingly for the benefits of all civilians ensure that they are not just of use to those who are already the most privileged?

Even those who crack the technology discover that urgent findings about poverty, health, discrimination, conflict or social change are presented in prose written by and for high-level experts, rendering it impenetrable to almost everyone else.

Information is “trapped in PDFs and in PhDs”. And there will always be a narrow market for raw policy reports.

To make it more accessible, data needs to be mashed up; to make it relevant, information must be distributed in a targeted way to those most likely to be interested.

And it must be written for the user: perhaps using blog posts, videos and graphics.

Policy information is most usable if it's linked to corresponding actions the user can take: when it helps to stimulate debate.

The 2nd part of this blog will be posted in the coming days. 

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