The open government and open data movement has steadily grown over the last few years. We are seeing governments once disinterested in publishing open data, race to do so. Open data conferences are now filled with as many civil servants as technologists. But we can’t take these successes for granted. At its roots, the open data movement depends upon a solid and respected Right to Know – even if open data gets more attention.
My entry into the world of tech, data and social change was through working at Access Info Europe back in 2009, where I saw how important access to information can be in helping push for social change, and the importance of defending our right to get it. Afterwards, as I moved more into the open data space, I saw a huge difference in perception between the hype of open data and the more established right to information movement.
Why do governments give us the data raw, and give it to us now? Primarily, for one of two reasons: 1. Because it makes them look good. 2. Because they have to. When open data is no longer innovative or sexy, we need to be able to resort to option 2.
The Right to Know is the plumbing underneath what has become an ecosystem focused on open government and open data, but it often gets forgotten. The work of people protecting and defending the right to know gets taken for granted as we focus on the more exciting or innovative pieces that rely upon it. This needs to change if we are serious about using information as a tool in pushing for positive social change.
The right to know means that the government is a duty bearer in sharing information. Even after a government proactively publishes key data sets, we must support right to know defenders to ensure that we still have power as citizens to demand that even uncomfortable data is made available when it is in the public interest.
If you want to see what happens when a government invests in open data as a way to whitewash its own resistance to freedom of information, look no further than next week. The Spanish federal government is a key partner for the International Open Data Conference next week in Madrid. At the same time, they’ve been busy creating barriers for Spanish civil society wanting to gain access to information through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests (ironically, this includes trying to hide information about the Spanish government’s own open government commitments). Last year, the Spanish FOI website Tu Derecho a Saber had to shut down as a result.
FOI and Open Data
Silvana Fumega’s work has been leading the way in making links between the Freedom of Information community and the Open Government Data communities. As she writes:
The capacity to exercise the right to access government documents and information was one of the main steps that made the open government data movement a reality.
Thanks to solid access to information campaigning, many countries have confirmed in their legislation that accessing information is a right, not a privilege – and the open government and open data movement have used that right to demand more data about government activities and more.
I’ve seen far more attention from from all angles- media, funders and public discourse – on the open data innovators, the entrepreneurs and the thought leaders, than on the rights defenders that they depend upon.
Now, perhaps, we’re coming to a transition point. The open data movement is growing up, and hopefully we’ve begun to realise that open data on its own is far from enough. Beneath open data we need solid plumbing and foundations – the right to know, Freedom of Information laws that are supported and respected. On top of it, we need good communication, community building, connection with existing social movements, and demand-driven work.
Openwashing the right to know
Supporting the open data ecosystem, there’s research on its impact in the world, funding challenges focused on data-driven projects, and growing numbers of open data portals springing up around the world.
But there’s far fewer opportunities for funding research and campaigning on the right to know and freedom of information.
Access Info Europe’s work is showing worrying trends in states getting worse and worse at respecting our right to know. The World Bank just decided to close their department working on access to information. In India, at least 39 people who used the Right to Information law have been murdered over the last decade, and many more have reported intimidation. And there are many more examples of how the right to information is at risk all over the world.
These double standards are putting both movements at risk.
Given these growing threats, combined with our increased knowledge of government secrecy and surveillance, and new possibilities through widespread technologies, it feels like we should be focusing more than ever on strengthening our right to information. This means directing funding towards it, supporting the established RTI community, and directing resources towards exercising our right to information when we can.
Nothing good ever comes of not taking care of the plumbing, and this is no exception. We all depend on the right to know for so much of our technology and data work, and those working to protect that right deserve our thanks and our support.
With thanks to Helen Darbishire for conversations that fed into this post and Alix Dunn for substantive edits.