“Open data has the power to usher in a new era of transparency, accountability and true citizen engagement.” That sentiment has been repeated time and again – including at this week’s Open Government Partnership summit in Mexico, in which many of our team are participating.
We agree. But there are two critical factors which are too often overlooked as we look to turn the potential of open data into positive, citizen-led change.
Power lies in people, not data.
As Cory Doctorow once observed, information does not want to be free – people do.
So amid talk of a data revolution, and more specifically an open data revolution, we must keep our focus squarely on people, not data sets, and empower individuals and groups with the skills, insight, appetite and rights to use open data to tackle the issues which matter most to them.
- Let’s commit to releasing the data that citizens most want to have, not just the data that is easy or convenient for governments to publish. Even if that most-wanted data includes information that could be politically embarrassing (such as government contracts and politicians’ asset registers) or that has been a source of revenue (such as postcode information and company registers).
- Let’s commit to investing as much in those people and groups (journalists, activists and civil society) that can unlock and demonstrate the potential of open data as a tool for transformation as we do in the technology back-end.
- Let’s commit to ensuring universal, fast, affordable broadband and digital and data literacy for all, so that the ability to access and use open data does not create a new digital divide.
- Let’s commit to grounding our open data initiatives in a robust commitment to citizens’ right to information, right to privacy and right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Unfortunately, too many trends in today’s world are pushing in the opposite direction. As this week’s debates about deteriorating civic space have highlighted, we in the open data community can no longer afford to ignore such trends.
Open data ≠ openness
From a niche movement just a few years ago, open data is slowly entering the mainstream. Yet over exactly the same time period, space for civil society activities has shrunk and freedom of expression has come under sustained attack. This week, Freedom House reported that Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year. Earlier this year, Reporters Without Borders said that there had been a “worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014”. Meanwhile, Civicus, the global alliance of civil society organisations, logged “significant attacks on the fundamental civil society rights of free association, free assembly and free expression in 96 countries” in 2014. These themes have been the topic of debate and discussion at the OGP summit over the past few days.
Clearly, open data has not been the panacea for transparency and accountability that some have predicted, nor has it yet strengthened the hand of civil society globally. Is this a chicken or egg scenario? Is open data’s potential being constrained by a worsening environment for civil and political rights, or could the open data and open government communities be doing more to reverse these trends?
The International Open Data Charter: empowering people, supporting governments
Mindful of these two key concerns, we’re proud to be endorsing the International Open Data Charter, which is being adopted by more than 10 national and city governments today. Here’s why:
- The Charter’s six founding principles have a clear focus on making data useful for, and used by citizens.
- The Charter’s practical implementation support will help adopting governments to stimulate demand for open data from citizens.
- The Charter explicitly recognises the rights to privacy, freedom of expression as fundamental. Not only will this help to drive uptake of open data, but it will also help to move the needle back in the direction of true transparency and openness.
- The Charter has walked the talk of transparency, inclusion and openness in its creation, and will continue to do so doing forward. It was built through a online and offline open process of collaboration between governments, the private sector and civil society, and the Charter’s lead stewards (which include the Web Foundation) will continue to ensure this is the case in future, including adhering to clear process around adoptions, and a focus on open measurement and evaluation.
We are encouraged by the number of governments who today have shown such leadership by becoming the first to adopt the charter. We urge other governments to do the same in the weeks and months ahead. Let’s use the open Web and open data to build the just, thriving societies we all want to see.