Posted 24 October, 2016 by Julia Keseru

Changing existing power dynamics through open data: reflections on the International Open Data Conference


A few weeks ago, the Spanish government hosted the International Open Data Conference (IODC) in Madrid, one of the largest gatherings around open data and government transparency in the world.

As usual, the event brought together a great number of thoughtful and enthusiastic activists, researchers and government officials. At the same time, many of us had the feeling that the conference raised more questions than it answered around the relationship between information and power.

IODC definitely made me wonder, again, whether we are doing our best as a community to change existing power dynamics through open data.

Disclaimer: I do think it is possible to confront power through data, as I’ve seen so many instances where better information disclosure proved to be a game changer. Either through making it harder for government agencies, elected officials and powerful businesspeople to be neglectful, ignorant or fraudulent, or by improving service delivery in crucial areas of life, such as education, environmental protection or health care.

My favorite examples include Sunlight Foundation’s pioneer work around federal expenditures and the DATA Act in the US, the Rospil model from Russia where exposed government contracts are eventually brought to court by a group of pro bono lawyers, or the global push for more beneficial ownership information, inspired by the Panama Papers leak.

Disillusionment Around Transparency

At the same time, I increasingly believe that if we want to keep harnessing the power of open data in a meaningful, sustainable and responsible way, we have to shift gears a bit. And we need to do that soon.

The disillusionment around data disclosure is palpable, and let’s be honest: sometimes – though not always – quite reasonable. Just think about how transparency is now being used as a political weapon, how our sensitive data is being disclosed by government agencies and companies on a daily basis, and how transparency often leads to only more transparency, but not necessarily to structural reform.

The following reflections have been inspired by conversations happening at (but not solely related to) IODC.

1. Data is not winning over emotions (or politics)

Five years ago we might have thought that increased access to data and facts alone will drastically change the way we interact with politics. However, in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, it seems obvious that we cannot change the world, or people’s approach to society’s biggest problems through exposing the facts alone.

By now it has also become clear that average people don’t visit data portals on a regular basis – be honest with yourself: what was the last time you consulted a raw dataset if it wasn’t directly related to your job? – and even when they do, many of us will still base their judgements on emotions, rather than the evidence we are presented with.

Our biggest contribution to society as civic activists is not necessarily our ability to liberate raw data, rather our commitment to values that go way beyond the facts.

2. Real change happens after information has been disclosed

Going one step further, even if fact-based decision making was winning the case, most of the real change in the world happens after information has been disclosed anyway.

It might sound obvious, but seems like something that needs to be emphasized all over again: data sharing and technological innovation are difficult processes in and of themselves, however, real complexity happens after data has been liberated.

Initiatives that build on open data will probably take long years of trial and error to succeed, because there’s no such thing as straightforward causality between activism and social change, and because reform is not a linear thing.

Actually making a difference with data requires a long-term commitment to a variety of different tactics that go beyond proactive data disclosure, such as storytelling, campaigning, in-depth analysis, investigative journalism, policy advocacy, freedom of information requests, strategic litigation, and many more.

3. Open data initiatives must have a clear problem statement that goes beyond releasing information

What is it exactly that we’re trying to solve with information disclosure and data transparency?

Whatever the answer is – say decreasing the power of big business in politics, safeguarding elections, stopping human rights abuses, increasing gender equality, improving the quality of education – it seems clear that focusing on a specific problem (or a set of problems) rather than a type of solution is a more realistic approach to reform.

Right now, however, there’s still surprisingly few open data initiatives with clear problem statements, or a logical explanation of how disclosing information will bring about reform in a specific area.

In other words: so many in this community still think about open data as an end in itself, not a tool that allows us to achieve other important goals.

4. Accountability is still missing from open data initiatives

Speaking of other important goals: What exactly is going to happen when it turns out that the water of our city’s river is polluted? What are the consequences when teachers don’t show up at class? Who is doing what if we find out that a significant portion of our procurements are rigged and our tax money is wasted?

To me, these are the most relevant and exciting questions of the open data agenda, yet, it seems like so much of our thinking is still revolving around the act of disclosure, rather than the actual consequences that might follow. There’s a lot we can learn from more traditional transparency and freedom of information activism, especially when it comes to oversight and enforcement.

5. Deterring systematic failure is the most powerful impact of proactive data disclosure

Many of us working around the intersection of data and technology (including journalists whose job is to write stories that sell) use data to find problems that need fixing — like scandals, lies, misreporting, non-compliance. At the same time, most average taxpayers are actually hoping for the absence of wrongdoing, and can easily become apolitical by too much ‘truth disclosed’.

Questions around how data can lead to more informed decisions (like in the case of health care in Uruguay), better regulations around transparency itself (see again the DATA Act or beneficial ownership), or even real consequences (like in the case of Rospil) are much easier to answer then the question on how open data and transparency are actually deterring wrongdoing.

That said, preventing systemic problems is one of the strongest and most powerful impacts of information disclosure, and we need put some serious thinking into how we can answer that question.

6. Context is everything

Whatever happens after the disclosure of data, it needs to be grounded in the exact social and political realities where these initiatives operate in.

It is always illuminating to see how civic technology means something slightly different for activists in Chicago, Buenos Aires or Tbilisi, and not surprisingly, the exact same dataset can be (and will be) used in different ways, and for different purposes in almost every context.

Our Matchbox partner, IPPR in Namibia, for instance, is using data on extractives licences to prevent corruption, while activists in Malawi are more interested in how they can empower their community to keep an eye on the industry – with the same set of information.

Open data initiatives need to accommodate complexity in a way that remains respectful of context.

How do we change existing power dynamics through open data?

To offer more than just reflections, we at the Engine Room will keep sharing our learning of all the tactics and methods that we experiment with.

We use these methods (such as outcome mapping, intentional design, agile thinking, or our very own replication sprint approach) to keep ourselves and our partners focused on problems, rather than solutions, and to be able to develop strong theories of change and long-term plans for what happens after data has been disclosed.

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