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Open Data – Louder Voices?

June 20, 2011 in External, OKCon

The following guest post is by Michael Gurstein from the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training in Vancouver. Micheal will be joining us at OKCon 2011 for his talk Open Data – Louder Voices?

This post follows on from earlier posts on Michael’s blog here, here, and here.

There is a great deal of celebration these days about the shift in many governmental jurisdictions towards Open Data, and there is much to celebrate in this.

However, there is also the need for some caution in how this is being approached and particularly there is the need for considerable attention to be given to making sure that the use/user perspective is not lost in the rush to design pretty apps for mobile platforms to satisfy the cravings of the information empowered for even more data and for the personal empowerment that goes along with this.

Recognizing that at least for now most Open Data initiatives are based on accessing and using this data via the Internet, here are a few notes suggesting caution:

Access

According to Internet World Statistics, only 30% of the people in the world have Internet access (10% in Africa).

Hardware

Some 20% of the world’s population owns a computer

So how many people in the world are able to directly access “open data”?

Software

500,000,000 use Microsoft Office

Can we take this as a surrogate for the number of those who are able to actively manage “open data”?

Content

While the world adult literacy rate at 83%, ranges from 63% in Africa to 99% in Europe, it is estimated that “nearly a quarter of 16 to 65-year-olds in the world’s richest countries are functionally illiterate”.

This suggests a global level of “functional literacy” (defined by the OECD as the ability to complete real-life tasks, such as reading and understand brochures, train timetables, road maps, and simple instructions for household appliances) as being below 50%.

Understanding

The average readability level of American state and federal websites is at the 11th grade, and yet half of Americans read at the eighth grade level or lower, according to this report.

An important question we therefore need to ask ourselves is what would be the proportion of those in various jurisdictions able to read/comprehend various “open data” sites/initiatives?

Use

As Tobias Escher observed in his analysis of users and usage of the WriteToThem online citizen democracy tool:

The overall demographics of these users extend the traditional biases in political participation: compared to the profile of British Internet users, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and are twice as often on a higher income (more than £37,500 per year). Apart from this, WriteToThem attracts more male users and those 45 years and older, while Internet users younger than 35 are less likely to use the site. In particular, teenagers (<18 years) stay largely out of reach – they account for only one in a hundred users. … In part the reported biases mirror traditional patterns of engagement in this particular form of political participation as comparative data show that people who have contacted a politician via any means are similarly biased towards men or high-income groups. At the same time WriteToThem extends some of these already present biases, for example the overrepresentation of people with higher education and those in the 55-64 age bracket. [However] Low-income groups including the unemployed are well represented, a sign of success in reaching out to the poorer citizens and not just a side effect of a young people or student involvement.

This suggests that even for the most basic “open government” site there is a direct relationship between use and education.

Governance

No, we are not party political, and this project is neither left nor right wing. It is about building useful digital tools for anyone who wants to use them. And unlike most think tanks that say they’re non-partisan, we really are – none of that ‘It’s not official, but everybody knows they’re really close to party X’ nonsense here.

From the My Society website.

WriteToThem.com is a website that allows everyone to find out who their elected representatives are and to send them messages.

These goals are to establish a dialogue between constituent and representative as well as to let representatives focus on genuine emails (and not on sorting out spam) by preventing mass emailing of copy-and-paste letters.

From Tobias Escher’s report on WriteToThem.

TheyWorkForYou is a website, launched in 2004, that provides detailed information on members of parliament (including their voting behaviour and expenses) as well as parliamentary proceedings such as debates … to allow fact checking (e.g. give access to source evidence) and make MPs feel accountable; to reward truthful MPs, to allow fair judgement of MPs on basis of what they do.

From Tobias Escher’s report on TheyWorkForYou.

To take the TheyWorkForYou.com and WriteToThem.com sites as broadly representative of (at least) an important genre of “open data/open government” initiatives, the implicit model of political behaviour that is represented here is one of an individual interacting directly with the individual representative. There is no mention of parties (whose function of course is to integrate and frame the actions of individual representatives) nor is there an opportunity for individuals to aggregate their responses to individual representatives (meet up) and thus through aggregation amplify their voices.

In the absence of this aggregation the capacity of the individual to act in any other manner than as either an individual complainer or supplicant would appear to be very small.

Equally, in the absence of linking individual actions by representatives into parties and their overall policy responsibilities there is an implicit assumption that individual representatives are in fact “accountable” for their political actions and capable of independent political action in their respective spheres.

Finally the given demographics of the users of these sites should be noted i.e. they are those who would otherwise already be influential—older, richer, more likely to be male, better educated.

So what does this all tell us?

1. The vast vast majority of people in the world and even in the most Developed Countries are unable for a variety of reasons to benefit from “open data—open government”.

  1. Attention must be paid to ensuring Internet access, computer access, literacy, readablility of websites etc. that would make “open data—open government” more accessible/usable to the general population

  2. The absence of such attention as a component of “open data—open government” means that additional opportunities for accessing and using government information is for the most part simply a means to further enable/empower those already well provided by society with the means to influence government—the educated, the well off, older persons, males. Making the already louder voices even louder.

Given the clear advantage that those with the already louder voices have in making use of facilities like TheyWorkForYou.com and WriteToThem.com, what will the net effect be of these kinds of initiatives? Certainly the opening up of information on the actions of representatives and facilitating means for communicating with representatives should extend the opportunities for democratic engagement. However, whether they do this by making democratic participation more inclusive or simply by reinforcing existing patterns of influence rooted in long-standing structures of privilege and position seems still to be an open question.

How relevant will these opportunities be in responding to the needs of the excluded and the marginalized? And overall what measures are in place to ensure that those who have otherwise been excluded are not further excluded in fact, finding their exclusion reinforced in this new data environment? How will open data and open government respond to the needs of and open up opportunities for the urban and rural poor, indigenous people in both developed and particularly in developing countries; the landless and the migrants?  
Recognizing that there is a risk, is sufficient attention being given to developing and implementing measures that might ensure a balance—to facilitating the effective use of the data and networking resources that are being made available through training, design, facilitation, and where necessary direct intervention? Recognizing that in many cases it will be precisely those with the most to gain from access to open data who will have the least capability in gaining access and obtaining the means to make effective use of this data.
What responsibility do those who are making the data available have in ensuring the broad and most inclusive base for not only access but the opportunity for effective use of these significant new resources—for ensuring a balance between the louder and the weaker voices.

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