(Open) Data: The New Tech-Utopia?

Kevin Lo's picture

Last week I attended a conference "Can Open Data Improve Democratic Governance" held in Berkeley, California. As part of its Data and Democracy initiative, The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) convened representatives from the public sector, tech industry, and NGOs to discuss the many issues surrounding open data. 

In the business world it would seem like every week there's a data event, a data-related startup closing a funding round, or a mainstream media story on how analytics is improving revenue/margins/profits. The Economist also wrote about "Clever Cities" and how  The notion of data, specifically open data, improving democratic governance is particularly alluring one. However, it is also premised on several assumptions:

  • Government, regardless of one's political and ideological inclinations, is inefficient and ineffective, especially when compared to corporations.
  • The eroding trust in government beckons an engaged citizen to rise up and take matters into their own hands.
  • Technology, especially the free and open kind, is the great equalizer that'll make this all happen.

To take a look at these assumptions I start with the last one and reference Michael Gurstein's (@michaelgurstein) slides on the oft-cited example of land-use digitization in Bangalore


Almost seven years on since that paper, we still have not done enough in terms of the digital divide, and increasingly the data divide. Although one can argue that smartphones have come so far down in price in that even a basic one with a capable browser can access troves of information, data literacy is probably still low among the average citizen. If anything, the gospel of data visualization is leaving more people behind. It's one thing to better present Detroit's dire situation in infographics, but it's another for citizens to do something about it. Opened data, not unlike your routine voter guides, is unlikely to help those directly affected by failed cities allocate pension or loan repayments. A Sankey diagram of a city budget is a laudable step towards transparency, but it is debatable whether it would prevent a Detroit or Jefferson county scale disaster. A new crop of data journalists and organizations are now using the data and tools to present these important stories, but we are still a ways off before we can expect average citizens to take action. In a more global scale the the same issues need to be tackled, as a recent blog post by the UNDP admits. Marnie Webb from Caravan Studio points out:

With this backdrop, we should expect and foster civil society's role in bridging that divide between governement and constituents. 

To the point about inefficient government, Lt. Governor and former San Francisco mayor gave his keynote on the subject, and has also written a book about on the topic. 

Lt.Gov Gavin Newsom

Image: Kevin Lo

Without a doubt the political winds and economic realities we're facing necessitates smarter allocation of resources. Although it was refreshing to hear the Lt. Gov. Newsom lead a critical dialogue on government, the fact that San Francisco, or Palo Alto, or New York City are exceptional - outliers even - should not be lost. Call it a "Silicon Valley exceptionalism" if you will, but there are a limited number of places in the world where you can host a hackathon and can expect a legion of hackers and developers  - "working" for free - come together and expect something great to come out of it. The Economist recently wrote:

Some cities hold “data dives” at which activists and experts in analytic technique pore over data from diverse sources looking for fruitful new ways to combine them...But this enthusiasm has rarely, so far, translated into game-changing success: except in the area of public transport, few apps using open data have made the jump from interesting novelty to reliable consumer service. Venture capitalists have not proved very enthusiastic about them; many developers have given up. The data provided by cities may be free, but they are often poorly formatted or lacking in necessary metadata—such as details of location. Commercial data cost money.

Code for America (and now Code for Africa) addresses some of that talent disparity, but apps are only useful if you acquire enough users and for enough of them to demand change. Newsom alluded to Arab Spring and the Tea Party movements and their use of social media, but keep in mind that these groups came together with an agenda, and technology became a means of achieving that agenda, just as revolutionaries have done for millenia. 

Not all is dire of course. For every story you hear about America's declining STEM competency, we hear another about how teens and youth are embracing coding and tech. Data and technology is a key tool for improving society, but it still needs to be used by a data literate and engaged (or even enraged) public for it to happen.