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Freedom of information and open government data communities could benefit from closer collaboration

Web Foundation · August 28, 2015

Silvana Fumega, PhD researcher and independent consultant, writes on the relationship between the Freedom of Information (FOI) and the Open Government Data (OGD) communities as part of our second phase of  Open Data in Developing Countries research. Download the full report here.

The Freedom of Information (FOI) and Open Government Data (OGD) communities have had different origins and sometimes different motivations. Recently, it has become clear that in order to reach their shared vision of a society where citizens can access knowledge for their collective benefit, these two communities must begin to work more closely together.

As part of the second phase of research on Open Data in Developing Countries, this research explores the similarities and differences between these two communities that ultimately want many similar things in spite of their differing approaches and motivations. The Third International Open Data Conference held in Canada earlier this year provided the opportunity to reinvigorate this dialogue. A discussion which began about the relationship between privacy and openness soon focused on the lack of relationship between the FOI and OGD communities.

Just a couple of months later, the UK moved to review, and allegedly weaken, its own Freedom of Information Act. Alongside traditional FOI advocates, a number of voices in the open data community voiced their concerns, with statements from  the Web Foundation, MySociety, Open Knowledge Foundation and the Open Data Institute shared on Twitter, blogs and the media.

This is a clear signal that international organisations working in the open data field are increasingly aware of the negative impact a dilution of strong FOI laws could have on their own vision for transparent, accountable governance that can foster social and economic innovation. They are willing to advocate for OGD as one tool among many to this end. Crucially, they were unanimous in their insistence that open data does not equal open government – a misleading claim made by certain governments which is known as “open washing”.

In this context, this research comes at the right time, and advances the idea that there is plenty for the Freedom of Information and Open Government Data communities to learn from one another and a number of areas where they can work together. The paper examines some of the basic differences and similarities between the two, summarised in the chart below. While there are exceptions, these generalisations help us to understand the perspectives of both movements.

The paper also compares information on existing rankings, indices and other measurements used to evaluate both FOI and OGD policies and legislation. In that comparison, we go into more detail on the objectives, approaches and goals of these policies and how they are compared across a number of different geographies.

Freedom of InformationOpen Government Data
Objective of the field Information (often in the form of documents) held and/or produced by the public sector

Requester often has a right to express a desired format
Data in reusable, digital format held and/or produced by the public sector

Open format is inherent to the initiative
Approach to copyright and licensingDiffers by country:

Some (e.g. USA) have no restriction on publication

Other FOI laws do not alter copyright laws, so rights to reuse may be limited
License is inherently granted to the user to reuse and republish the data freely
Core information/data focusReducing information asymmetry, focus on accessFocus on reuse and added value (often social or economic)
ApproachOften legalisticTechnical + policy (and often accompanied by economic arguments)
Relationship with public sectorTends to be more adversarialPragmatic and more collaborative

Building a bridge between the FOI and OGD communities

There are a number of areas highlighted in this research which could be a starting point for collaboration between the two communities, including:

  • Privacy legislation: On the FOI side, fairly close links have been developed with privacy and data protection specialists. OGD specialists face similar privacy issues, for example with regard to healthcare data, and could benefit from the FOI community’s experience.
  • Copyright and IP: The two communities could work together  on issues of copyright and intellectual property (IP). There seems to be little reason why the rights to reuse data should differ greatly from the right to reuse information obtained via FOI requests.
  • Format: Similarly, there is room for collaboration on the question of file formats. While the formats and mechanisms needed by OGD practitioners may differ from those needed by FOI requesters, both are subject to the risk of not being able to use disclosed information if it is provided in a closed file format.
  • Increasing government transparency: OGD practitioners are already seeking access to datasets that some governments are unwilling to publish. It is here that the decades of experience built up by the FOI community can assist the OGD community. This collaboration can be fostered by creating a physical and intellectual space for these FOI and OGD actors to come together to discuss how to join forces and persuade governments to become more open.

Despite efforts made over the last decade, we have really only begun to see the full potential of both Freedom of Information and Open Government Data. Far more will be achieved, and with far greater efficiency, if both FOI and OGD communities invest in a shared research and advocacy agenda. This will not only deliver more coherent and effective outcomes, but also build crucial bridges between the two communities.


Note: This project is part of the ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries’ (ODDC) research funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (through grant 107075). The Web Foundation is a partner of the Open Data for Development network.

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