The following guest post is by Duncan Edwards from the Institute of Development Studies.

I’ve had a lingering feeling of unease that things were not quite right in the world of open development and ICT4D (Information and communication technology for development), so at September’s Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva I took advantage of the presence of some of the world’s top practitioners in these two areas to explore the question: How does “openness” really effect change within development?

Inspiration for the session came from a number of conversations I’ve had over the last few years. My co-conspirator/co-organiser of the OKCon side event “Reality check: Ethics and Risk in Open Development,” Linda Raftree, had also been feeling uncomfortable with the framing of many open development projects, assumptions being made about how “openness + ICTs = development outcomes,” and a concern that risks and privacy were not being adequately considered. We had been wondering whether the claims made by Open Development enthusiasts were substantiated by any demonstrable impact. For some reason, as soon as you introduce the words “open data” and “ICT,” good practice in development gets thrown out the window in the excitement to reach “the solution”.

A common narrative in many “open” development projects goes along the lines of “provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change.” In essence, because of the newness of this field, we only know what we THINK happens, we don’t know what REALLY happens because there is a paucity of documentation and evidence.

It’s problematic that we often use the terms data, information, and knowledge interchangeably, because:

Data is NOT knowledge.
Data is NOT information.
Information is NOT knowledge.
Knowledge IS what you know. It’s the result of information you’ve consumed, your education, your culture, beliefs, religion, experience – it’s intertwined with the society within which you live.

Understanding and thinking through how we get from the “openness” of data, to how this affects how and what people think, and consequently how they MIGHT act, is critical in whether “open” actually has any additional impact.

At Wednesday’s session, panellist Matthew Smith from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) talked about the commonalities across various open initiatives. Matthew argued that a larger Theory of Change (ToC) around how ‘open’ leads to change on a number of levels could allow practitioners to draw out common points. The basic theory we see in open initiatives is “put information out, get a feedback loop going, see change happen.” But open development can be sliced in many ways, and we tend to work in silos when talking about openness. We have open educational resources, open data, open government, open science, etc. We apply ideas and theories of openness in a number of domains but we are not learning across these domains.

We explored the theories of change underpinning two active programmes that incorporate a certain amount of “openness” in their logic. Simon Colmer from the Knowledge Services department at the Institute of Development Studies outlined his department’s theory of change of how research evidence can help support decision-making in development policy-making and practice. Erik Nijland from HIVOS presented elements of the theory of change that underpins the Making All Voices Count programme, which looks to increase the links between citizens and governments to improve public services and deepen democracy. Both of these ToCs assume that because data/information is accessible, people will use it within their decision-making processes.

They also both assume that intermediaries play a critical role in analysis, translation, interpretation, and contextualisation of data and information to ensure that decision makers (whether citizens, policy actors, or development practitioners) are able to make use of it. Although access is theoretically open, in practice even mediated access is not equal – so how might this play out in respect to marginalised communities and individuals?

What neither ToC really does is unpack who these intermediaries are. What are their politics? What are their drivers for mediating data and information? What is the effect of this? A common assumption is that intermediaries are somehow neutral and unbiased – does this assumption really hold true?

What many open data initiatives do not consider is what happens after people are able to access and internalise open data and information. How do people act once they know something? As Vanessa Herringshaw from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative said in the “Raising the Bar for ambition and quality in OGP” session, “We know what transparency should look like but things are a lot less clear on the accountability end of things”.

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Do citizens have the agency to take action? Who holds power? What kind of action is appropriate or desirable? Who is listening? And if they are listening, do they care?

Linda finished up the panel by raising some questions around the assumptions that people make decisions based on information rather than on emotion, and that there is a homogeneous “public” or “community” that is waiting for data/information upon which to base their opinions and actions.

So as a final thought, here’s my (perhaps clumsy) 2013 update on Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 song “The Revolution will not be televised”:

“The revolution will NOT be in Open data,
It will NOT be in hackathons, data dives, and mobile apps,
It will NOT be broadcast on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,
It will NOT be live-streamed, podcast, and available on catch-up
The revolution will not be televised”

Heron’s point, which holds true today, was that “the revolution” or change, starts in the head. We need to think carefully about how we get far beyond access to data.

Look out for a second post coming soon on Theories of Change in Open, and a third post on ethics and risk in open data and open development. And if you’re interested in joining the conversation, why not sign up to our Open Development mailing list

Image source: Data cake metaphor developed by Mark Johnstone

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This post is by a guest poster. If you would like to write something for the Open Knowledge Foundation blog, please see the submissions page.

13 thoughts on “The revolution will NOT be in Open Data”

  1. The idea of a Theory of Change that would explain how openness makes a difference is a very interesting one. I have recognised a similar need and I’ve dreamed about some sort of publication or forum that would gather researchers interested in open knowledge to discuss different theories that underline a particular view on open knowledge, with the aim of creating a more unified view. The first attempt to create such a discourse was The Open Book (, but we would certainly benefit of a more theoretical debate. I’m a bit skeptic that we can find one theory to explain it all, but most probably there will be a few key theories, such as those related to open society or open innovation. But it would be good for the open knowledge movement to increase theoretical understanding of the subject, most definitely!

  2. Great post. As an enabler, we do need to develop some theories, and/or use existing ones, to better understand the potential of open data to disrupt and change the world we live in. I suspect that its real power will lie not in itself, but as part of the wider ‘open’ movement.

  3. You got a point of great value: the process applied to “open data” is key to change.
    True, I agree.
    Do not forget that the process does not start without data and the “power” prevents the access to data, manipulate the data, delay the delivery of data in order to destroy any possibility to understand and take actions by citizens !

  4. I’m glad you’ve set things out like this because it’s engaging to read but I think you land a glancing rather than a finishing blow on this topic for two reasons.

    Firstly, I don’t think the movement about open data is necessarily about outcomes in the first instance. I rather think it’s about probability. A forensic understanding and drive for outcomes is useful and I applaud it. But whilst this picture builds, let’s not junk the notion that in all likelihood openness raises chances of better results on balance. For the same reason I strongly suspect I am much safer driving in the dark with the headlights on than I am with them off.

    Secondly, let’s take a lead here from high-end science. The Higgs Boson was evidenced last year many, many years after the first theory. It eventually discovered clues to much of the unknown universe. It also cost a lot of money. Openness is highly complex too and we may need an equivalent of the Hadron Collider to evidence it. But it doesn’t necessarily mean we should give up. Yes, open data isn’t everything. But neither is it nothing. That bit of magic in the middle of the theory of change could be really rather important. Not the whole revolution, but in all likelihood an important factor.

    1. Hi Vinny,
      Just to clarify, I am not intending to harm or finish off “openness”. In fact I am a huge advocate of both openness and technology. My point is that we need to be doing this better and think more carefully about how we might be able to demonstrate the impact of the work that we are doing.

      As you note Openness is highly complex, particularly when you ground it in the complexity of the society within which we live, and utilise principles of openness to bring about change. I feel that in many cases this complexity is not being adequately considered in the planning and implementation of initiatives.

      If I understand your first point correctly regarding probability rather than outcomes – what you are getting at is the value of openness in increasing the probability of new outcomes being possible? I would agree there is also huge value in this too – Steven Johnson describes this as the Adjacent Possible which – “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.”


      1. Thanks for your reply Duncan. It’s possible I took your Gill Scott Heron mantra too strongly, though it maybe left itself open to an extreme interpretation.

  5. Thanks, Duncan. I agree this is an area with a lot of fuzzy thinking, so it is good to be skeptical. Still, like Vinny, I’m generally in favor. I think government openness is more likely to do good than harm, and it shouldn’t be hard for it to do enough good to justify the modest cost (modest compared to, say, building 10,000 schools). For me the theory of change is quite broad and goes like this: information is power; a government that opens information bestows power on other, weaker actors; this small step toward parity between political actors constitutes political development, and possibly economic development as well if the information is commercially useful. Precise consequences cannot be anticipated but will mostly be good.
    That’s the theory anyway.

  6. My concern is that the Open Data movement — which is currently so in vogue — will detract from other equally (if not more) important opportunities to improve availability and utilization of data.

  7. Duncan, like yourself I am an advocate of open data and of open development but not an uncritical one. The field is currently dominated by white, urban, male, university-educated, geeky types – like you and I – so there is a question about the extent to which it is truly ‘open’. We need to enable the meaningful participation of a broader and more diverse base for openness to realise its full potential. Just for fun I have had a first hack at a theory of change here

  8. While the uselessness of most “data” (open or not) seems a commonplace, we also need to admit that most of what we consider “knowledge” does very little to make our mortal lives better. A theory of change with knowledge as its driver seems naively “scientistic”: like a theory of cake without a mouth.

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