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Web Foundation · October 31, 2016

This post was written by our Research Officer, Ana Brandusescu.


Openwashing as a concept is a great conversation starter. Conversations can start here. Not long ago our Research Officer Ana Brandusescu (@anabmap) moderated a session at the Open Exchange for Social Change Unconference, ahead of the International Open Data Conference on Tuesday, 4 October 2016. Here are some of the key takeaways raised by participants in the discussion.

So what is “Open Washing”?

Based on working group conversations we had at the Open Exchange for Social Change Unconference in Madrid, openwashing is about providing selective information without having an environment where citizens can freely use that data – whether for building businesses or for holding government to account. This often occurs in the absence of strong freedom of expression, data protection, and freedom of information laws. It primarily resonates with government but can also exist outside of government:

In government, openwashing is practiced when information released about government contracts is not detailed enough for the public to have a full picture of what that contract means: questions like, who were the bidders? How and to whom was the contract awarded? And how was the money spent? cannot be answered. This can also be applied to lack of public information on subcontractors in charge of managing projects.

Outside of government, openwashing is practiced when reports are written touting case studies of open government data, its success and impact, when they might just be results, or outcomes. Yet over and over again there have been mentions that impact in open government data is rare. Impact is a long-term goal. It can take years before we may see any real impacts. However, impact is being sold as happening now.

The 2015 Open Data Barometer report found that “open data initiatives risk simply being window-dressing, or “open washing” – when data is called “open” data upon release but it does not truly meet the full open criteria.” Governments release data on one hand but restrict use and freedom on the other. They can pretend to be an open government by solely having a basic open data portal with few data available, and running hackathons as a quick and easy way to tick the ‘open’ box.

How long has openwashing been around for?

In 2009, Michelle Thorne (Mozilla) identified the concept of openwashing in the open source movement and defined as being similar to greenwashing. Already, we can see that a definition within a definition is indicative of its complexity and nature. Christian Villum (Open Knowledge) added to the definition by expanding on the difference between opening your data and simply making them available.

Governments or organisations may not realise that they are contributing to openwashing. Therefore, the group of us gathered in Madrid agreed it was important to publish data that is comparable and specific enough to have answers for openwashing. In addition, we discussed publishing both politically sensitive data (e.g. spending, budgets, contracting) and non-sensitive data (e.g. weather); with the latter, it is easier to tick ‘open data boxes’ than with the former. We questioned the current environment of publication and what type of data it enables, allows or encourages to be published.

We discussed the importance of enforcing legal frameworks, beyond having existing ones in place. It is about the right to data, the right to information, and ultimately, the right to know (participation and transparency). We identified users as a group of organisations working on an issue; they are developers, academics, politicians, activists, civic groups. We are the users. Let’s start here, to track our progress (or lack thereof) and evolve. Moreover, what are the incentives for governments to tackle openwashing? Is it re-election? Increased ranking in the Open Data Barometer and Global Open Data Index?

What’s in it for us?

We all recognised the need to have engagement processes. Currently we do not have feedback loops, with clear communication channels. Here we need to think about how it works:

By the end of two rounds of intensive sessions we did not arrive to any conclusions on a definition, but decided to focus on open government and open government data; openwashing in both government and non-profit sector. We realised that open is so open ended, and ultimately we ended up with more questions than answers. But that’s okay because this conversation has just started. So let’s continue it!

Thank you to Danny Lammerhirt, Silvana Fumega, Fabrizio Scrollini, Oscar Montiel, Teemu Ropponen, and Julia Keseru for a great discussion, Mor Rubinstein for co-hosting a great event, Carlos Iglesias and Craig Fagan for ODB and policy insights. The session was inspired by the Web Foundation’s 2015 Open Data Barometer 3rd Edition openwashing findings Silvana Fumega’s Freedom of information and open government data communities could benefit from closer collaboration, and Zara Rahman’s When the open washing is over: protecting the right to know. Read the latest pieces that came out of the International Open Data Conference week:


You can follow Ana on Twitter at @anabmap. For more updates, follow the Web Foundation on Twitter at @webfoundation.

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