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From open data to a right to data: A response to the UN Data Revolution report

Web Foundation · December 9, 2014

“Data are the lifeblood of decision-making and the raw material for accountability,” says a new UN report. We couldn’t agree more. At a recent workshop with the Independent Expert Advisory Group’s lead author, Claire Melamed, participants (including Publish What You Fund, ONE Campaign, Open Data Watch and other partners) reflected on what it would take to bring about a “data revolution” to make the global fight against poverty more effective. One of the main challenges raised was institutional resistance to data disclosure — a barrier highlighted in the Web Foundation’s 17-country study of the uses of data in day-to-day governance. To build a true  “data revolution”, we believe there is need for a paradigm shift to a Right to Data (RTD), drawing valuable lessons from the successful Right to Information movements across the world.

What do we mean by “Right to Data”?

Around 100 countries have now passed Right to Information (RTI) laws, enshrining a universal right of access to information and/or documents (though not always both) in the possession of government departments and agencies, and imposing on such entities additional obligations to publish and make available specific information. We believe that there should be more awareness on the legal right to reactive disclosure through using RTI (i.e., submitting RTI requests). Furthermore, we believe RTI law can be framed to provide for proactive disclosure that explicitly addresses issues of open data (with governments disclosing raw data in machine-readable formats, and with permission for the data to be re-used).

A Right to Data embedded in strong legislation is important for the reason that any violation or refusal to provide data in open format could be challenged in quasi-judicial or judicial bodies. The focus on open data is largely channelled through arguments of transparency/accountability, economic and social benefits; while these arguments are indisputable, it is equally important to fight for data as a right. Countries such as  Kenya and the Philippines have open data policies and portals, and are members of the Open Government Partnership, however neither country has guaranteed the RTI in law — Kenya has no RTI law and the Philippines is currently on the threshold of passing one. Civil society groups in both countries have been advocating for the enactment of strong RTI laws, with the understanding of a citizen’s right to information. Two years after the launch of Kenya’s open data portal, Bitange Ndemo — former Permanent Secretary of the Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication and one of the chief architects of the Kenya open data portal — stated at the Connected Kenya forum that the “lack of the Freedom of Information Act means that we cannot take any action on government bodies that refuse to release data or refuse to respond”.

Building bridges between RTI and open data

Right to Data should constitute an inalienable part of a country’s RTI law.  In our ODDC research, we found countries at different stages of the relationship between RTI and open data. In countries with strong RTI laws, like India, research from The Energy and Resource Institute found energy resource data mostly unavailable, unusable where available, and, in general, of extremely poor quality. In the absence of good quality data, open data intermediaries can help strengthen the proactive regime by advocating for and helping release relevant datasets; however, embedding data publication requirements into a country’s RTI law will ensure the availability of better quality, timely, and reusable datasets.

On the other hand, where RTI laws have emerged more recently, open data and RTI movements are becoming closely aligned, and involve many of the same actors, such as in Nepal, where RTI advocates are now working to also secure open data access to budget data.

In Sierra Leone, advocacy from the Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI) along with other groups, has led to the creation of a separate Information Commissioner for Open Data within the RTI structure, who could potentially look at making proactive disclosures open, structured and reusable.

The Freedom of Information (FOI) bill being discussed in the Philippines has included open data provisions with a clause mandating the government to regularly update datasets on the data portal. This was again a result of the Open Data Task Force lobbying with the MPs to shape this provision. While the Full Disclosure Policy mandates the publication of key datasets in an open format online, compliance with the policy is at the discretion of local government; embedding this requirement in a national RTI law would strengthen compliance and would strengthen open data practice.

Of course, more action will be needed to ensure such legislation “has teeth”.  Greater dialogue and coordinated efforts between the RTI and open data communities would not only reduce duplication of efforts, but would also go a long way toward achieving this goal by strengthening both movements toward the common aims of transparency and accountability.

Our recommendations to the Independent Expert Advisory Group

  1. Raise awareness amongst all stakeholders on using RTI laws to gain access to data reactively as a first step. For example, in the case of India, RTI has become mainstream, but not open data — joint efforts between the movements would help to raise awareness of the open data movement.
  2. Suggest mapping RTI legislation at the threshold of enactment in various countries and advocate for open data to be explicitly embedded where this is not the case.
  3. Specify key datasets, such as budgets and spending, land data, contracts, company records, etc. to be made available in open format as right to data in RTI laws.
  4. At the Web Foundation, with a strong rights based focus on data and information, we advocate for bridging this gap between the two communities through projects such as Exploring the emerging impacts of open data in developing countries (ODDC) and current work on Freedom of Information and open data project in Aceh, Indonesia. We would share research findings with IEAG between RTI and open data communities through cross-fertilisation at regional workshops, or a dedicated RTI and open data track at major conferences, such as the upcoming international open data conference in Ottawa or RightsCon in the Philippines.

The revolution has to be real — one of action, and not just words. We strongly recommend the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development consider a “right to data” front and centre in the data revolution, and recognise that, in the words of social reformer Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without demand.”

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