Why publishing more open data isn’t enough to empower citizens

Jan 122017

When I attended the International Open Data Conference last October in Madrid, there was plenty of talk about whether open data has failed to live up to its promise. Has open data really increased transparency, improved government efficiency, brought about world peace, ended world hunger? What are we really talking about when we talk about open data’s “impact?” Whatever impact there might be is restricted to a couple of interesting case studies, but there is not yet a larger body of work describing how open data has brought about systemic, long-term change to societies around the world.

At the conference, I heard the same tired arguments about the need for data to be “open by default.” I heard countless examples of subversive hackers liberating data locked up in PDFs, in order to “uncover corruption.” Never mind that the mere act of making certain datasets public has rarely resulted in tangible policy changes. It seemed to me that the open data purists’ mantra is that we can’t predict how data will be used, so the release of data is important in and of itself, without concern over its value for society.

But simply “liberating” data is not enough. Even last year’s UN high-level conference on Africa’s data revolution recognized that private citizens are unlikely to use open data, and hence intermediaries — or “infomediaries” — must play an important role. These groups (data wranglers, academics, data-proficient civil society organizations, etc.) turn data into actionable information, which can then be used to lobby for tangible change.

Increasing the impact of the open data movement isn’t just a matter of emphasizing the role of these “infomediaries” — it means shifting focus from supply to demand. As many have argued, increasing the supply of data sets without focusing on what data is actually needed to solve specific problems is unlikely to lead to satisfying impacts.

I won’t rehash the same points made by others who’ve explained the importance of releasing the datasets that are most in demand. I’m interested in what I think is the next frontier in the open data movement — data literacy.

Of course, this is nothing new under the sun. The School of Data has been a leader in this area, aiming to teach journalists and others the skills they need to use data effectively. There are many other data journalism initiatives around the world doing the same. What’s lacking is a better definition of what “data literacy” actually means. A “data literate” citizen isn’t someone who knows how to handle a spreadsheet — it’s someone who inherently understands the value of data in decision-making.

Read the rest of the post on IJNet, produced by ICFJ.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via CyberHades.