Weeknotes – 22nd July 2022

[Cross-posted from Connected by Data blog]

Well, as Jonathan said but two weeks ago, a week’s a long time… Just as we thought ministerial mayhem might mean we had a bit longer before the ‘Data Reform Bill’ (DRB) would be out, on Monday this week the ‘Data Protection and Digital Information Bill’ dropped (DPDIB) revealing not only the new name, but the scope, for the DRB. We’ve got a team retreat next week where we’ll be digging into the detail of the Connected by Data response, but suffice to say that, right now, collective impacts and public voice do not feature as strongly as we think they could and should.

As I skipped writing up weeknotes last week, a couple of different themes to reflect on this time around, and lots of assorted extra bits.

Digging into dialogue

One of the big challenges in seeking to embed participatory mechanisms for data governance into legislation, is that there is a big risk of creating yet-another-tick-box and ending up with low quality compliance-oriented engagement, rather than transformative forms of participation.

Over the last three weeks I’ve been an observer of the NHS AI Lab Public Dialogue on data stewardship: a process involving around 50 members of the public meeting for 12 hours (across four sessions) to share their ‘thoughts, aspirations, hopes and concerns’ about how access to healthcare data for AI purposes should be managed. I’ve got a full write up in the works, but it’s been a really interesting opportunity to watch a ‘dialogue on dialogue’ as members of the public explored different models for public engagement in governing access to health data.

I’ve also been trying to read up more on the history of public dialogue, as our expression of interest in partnership with OpenSAFELY to the RSA Rethinking Public Dialogue fund has made it through to the second round of bidding. Here’s the one paragraph summary of what we’re trying to develop:

“Connected By Data and OpenSAFELY will collaboratively develop a protocol for ‘dialogue on demand’: agile and inclusive mini-dialogues on data governance and research design decisions that are developed based on bottom-up input from affected groups, and that feed into both iterative data governance process refinement, and into focussed operational decision making.”

Plus, I had the opportunity last week to sit-in on a training delivered by Simon Burral of Involve for the Data Trusts Initiative on governance and engagement design.

All this has been really useful for starting to think about the different factors that might help deliver the ‘powerful say’ for data-affected communities that we’re calling for. For now, I’ve captured this as an opinionated statement on what meaningful and effective participation looks like:

Generally the more concrete the issue or situation that discussion can focus on, and the more ‘moving parts’ of that issue/situation that can be made legible to participants, the more meaningful the discussion is likely to be. And the more that points made in a discussion can be grounded in relatable lived experiences, the more powerful the messages from a discussion are likely to be.

Sector specifics

Over the last fortnight Jonathan and I have been round a few loops of trying to articulate simple (hypothetical) stories of how current data practices affect real people in our target sectors (debt; housing; education). It’s proven (surprisingly?) challenging to articulate the narratives for debt in short prose, I think for a number of reasons:

  • I’ve been trying to focus on present problems rather than future fears. Reports like the fantastically useful Governing data and artificial intelligence for all: Models for sustainable and just data governance arguably have an easier job of it by looking primarily at (reasonably) imagined future AI harms, rather than quantified current harms.
  • In many cases, I’ve been finding that present problems are covered by regulation in some form, even if the data component of the problem has limited governance. For example, we started looking at targeted loan advertising, but find that industry self-regulation has led to voluntary action not to take adverts from payday lenders. This limited governance at the application layer doesn’t remove the issue that data is collected, pooled and shared that could be used to target people with risky financial products, although it means that right now this harm isn’t generally observed.
  • There are multiple stages, and multiple actors, in any story of how people are Connected by Data. Where I started by trying to present stories of single named individuals, I’ve now been experimenting with sketching scenarios with visual representations of the data flows that connect people, and that raise data governance questions.
  • The data problems are often indirect. Jonathan did some great work developing problem trees for debt and data; demonstrating that there are a couple of steps between the abuse of data, and the ‘crunch’ of relatable harms. Those ‘harms’ are even trickier to land when they are the absence of actions (e.g. missing data-supported provision of support to someone in debt).

It’s feeling like (a) it might be a few more iterations before we land really clear example stories for each sector; (b) like we might be discovering some of the challenges with getting robust stories to land in the debt sector specifically. I’ll be looking next week at whether this means we should revisit some of our focus sector selection.

Reading and reflections

Critical data studies and outsider action

I skimmed through a fantastic new Critical Data Studies Reading List from Frances Corry and colleagues that is focussed on papers that critically explore the data pipeline for machine learning. I’ve found lots of background reading to add to my own backlog of papers to hopefully get to reading over this summer, but was also looking out for any papers that might hint towards a participatory response to the many problems in the AI data pipeline. The few that did jump out could be said to take a more or less an outsider advocacy approach: representing voices and perspectives from populations affected or harmed by the data choices of an AI system to highlight they were not considered in the initial dataset selection or design. Such advocacy has led, in a number of cases, to significant AI training datasets being withdrawn or substantially modified.

I’ve been reflecting on how such independent and outsider activism is a key part of a spectrum of participation: able to set the agenda for discussions in more formalised participative spaces, and to hold those spaces to account for their outcomes, to provide a check on corporate capture of participatory processes. There’s more to think about here, but it’s also worth explicitly noting that more formalised participation of groups affected by AI systems in dataset governance did not appear (at a read of titles / abstracts) to be part of the repertoire of solutions being put forward by researchers in the ML community covered by this particular reading list.

Legislating data loyalty

This interesting new paper on Legislating Data Loyalty has a lot of resonances with ideas around Connected by Data, framing data loyalty as made up of three key components: “a (1) relational duty; (2) that prohibits self-dealing (3) at the expense of a trusting party”

The concept felt slightly limited by restricting the duty of loyalty from a firm solely to those whose data they collect (data subjects) rather than those affected by the data (data stakeholders), but it makes for an interesting and challenging re-articulation of privacy law, with a focus on US privacy law debates.

Where the paper gets into the details of implementation (p 374) it explores an approach to dealing with “inevitable conflicts between [the interest of] trusting parties”, by proposing that firms have reference to the “collective best interests of trusting parties” although how this is to be determined is not explored. From a Connected by Data perspective, we might suggest that one way a firm can establish that it has sought to understand collective interests is through some form of robust independent dialogue with a broad cross-section of its ‘trusting parties’.

AI in the City: Building Civic Engagement & Public Trust

Lots of interesting short essays in this colloquium collection from Ana Branduescu and Jess Reia including points on the importance of power, doubt, open processes and voices of the marginalised when governing the introduction of technology into the urban setting.

Other things from the fortnight

Filed under ‘listing out stuff mainly so I don’t forget it’, and just in case it sparks a useful connection anywhere…

Weeknotes – July 8th 2022

[Cross-posted from Connected by Data blog]

A bumper two-week weeknotes today, as I was travelling last week (delightful Rail+Sail journey over to the Netherlands for a workshop with The Land Portal and Eurostar back for my first international trip in more than two years).

Researching collective narratives

The first thing to share is that I’ve just posted a call for a contract researcher (or team) to help us map out existing cases and media stories that talk about the impacts of data with a collective lens. We’re looking for an individual or team who can work between August and October searching out relevant stories (in focus areas of health, housing, debt and education), and build a framework for analysing how they address the collective dimensions of data impact.

The idea for this broad piece of mapping work came from our team day on Monday, where we looked at our current plans to commission a series of stories that help land the point that data needs to be governed collectively, rather than solely through individual consents and controls. We identified the need to both track down existing stories that we might amplify, and to understand more of how a collective lens is currently being adopted in popular stories about where data is being used or abused to help or harm communities.

Building a more diverse network

We had some discussions over whether to just reach out to researchers we know for this project, or whether to run an open call. The deciding factor was that we have a better chance of reaching a more diverse network of potential researchers with an open call, so, drawing on the fantastic guide Gavin Freeguard developed for MySociety on commissioning research we put together the full CfP and an application process.

We’ve setup the application form both for this particular opportunity, and to allow people to opt-in to being part of a ‘research pool’ we could draw on in future, and we’ve included a question that can help us to, when other factors are equal, to prioritise applications that help us use our position and privilege to help increase the diversity of the data policy field.

Are you a member of a community that is under-represented in work on data, digital and AI in the UK and Europe, and if so, how?

We are asking this question because we are particularly keen to work with a diverse and inclusive network of partners. Please only provide details you are comfortable with sharing.

I’ve also, alongside the obligatory data processing consent statement, included an experimental ‘collective data governance’ question. After all, people will be taking time to submit their information to this form, and might have ideas for what more they would like to see done with it.

Collective Data Governance question in application form

I have no idea what this will generate, if anything: but it will be interesting to see if it triggers any interesting ideas and responses.

Narratives and frames

As background to prepare the CfP, I spend some time going through an interesting paper from Skurka, Niederdeppe and Winett called ‘There’s More to the Story: Both Individual and Collective Policy Narratives Can Increase Support for Community-Level Action’ which uses an experimental design to explore whether individualised or collective narratives about food deserts, and narratives framed using left (equity) or right (loyalty) based language were more likely to solicit support for policy proposals based on a Social Determinants of Health (SDH) model. They present a detailed theoretical case for thinking through individual and collective storytelling, and mapping mechanisms such as identification, empathy, transportation, hostility and counterarguing that shape how an audience processes a story into policy support.

They highlight the concerns that “telling stories about individual cases – even when emphasising system and policy-level solutions- may inadvertently reinforce beliefs about personal responsibility for health, thereby undermining public willingness to support community-level efforts to address factors in the environment.”, although their experimental evidence does not appear to bear out this concern.

They also outline the distinction between narrative frameworks (which include a setting, characters, plot and moral), and message framing (the particular aspects of a story that are given emphasis). Critically, this highlights that both narrative frameworks, and message framing, may vary in their approach to an individual vs. collective dichotomy. For example, it is possible to have a narrative centred on an individual, but where the framing draws attention to collective level issues, or it is possible to have a narrative story told at the level of the community, but that emphasises issues of individual responsibility or action.

Whilst we’ve left things fairly broad in the CfP, just giving examples of the kinds of stories we hope to find, and planning to iterate with the selected researcher on the exact approach to categorising stories, I’m anticipating we might draw on some of the approaches and learning from the Global Voices Civic Media Observatory, which has developed a workflow for sourcing and annotating media stories to uncover the different frames at play.

Dialogue, decisions and design

I put the finishing touches to our expression of interest for the RSA’s call on Rethinking Public Dialogue this week, developed along with Jess Morely at OpenSAFELY. In a nutshell, our proposal is to explore a model of ‘dialogue on demand’: agile and inclusive mini-dialogues on data governance and research design decisions that are developed based on bottom-up input from affected groups, and that feed into both iterative data governance process refinement, and into focussed operational decision making.

Many of the public dialogues I’ve been looking at while building our participation cases database take the form of large-scale engagement activities with a broadly representative population, run over multiple weeks and months. Indeed, yesterday I had my first three hours as an observer for a current NHS AI focussed dialogue, run by IPSOS with the Open Data Institute, and that’s due to have three more three hour sessions (12 hours online dialogue time in all). Our working hypothesis for our RSA proposal is that, where this kind of model may be good at establishing general principles for how data should be governed, “A streamlined protocol for responsive informed dialogue, shaped by bottom-up inputs, can provide a scalable model for public engagement to be applied to live data and research governance.”.

Our proposal explores developing/adapting methods to map out the data flows involved in particular data-rich health research studies, and the potential outputs or outcomes from research, and then using visual and text artefacts from this mapping to solicit initial input from people who might be affected by a particular study, the data it uses, or the issues it might raise. From this, having potentially found communities affected by a given set of data governance decisions, we would then design shorter focussed dialogues rooted around very concrete cases, which, we hypothesise, will be more tangible than discussions about data sharing or governance ‘in general’, even if they can generate higher-level lessons for data governance practice.

Working out, in practice, how different publics can be engaged in data governance decisions is going to be really important to our work in the coming year, and is a piece of the work I’m particularly excited about.

We’ll hear more in the next few weeks about whether we can take this particular idea forward to a full proposal for the RSA, or whether we might need to find other ways to take it forward.

The intersection of data and AI governance

I’ve still got an outstanding task of trying to map where data and platform governance intersect, but this week I’ve been looking a bit more at how current work on data and AI governance might connect. Key to that was reading the new paper “Who Audits the Auditors? Recommendations from a field scan of the algorithmic auditing ecosystem” from Sasha Constanza-Chock, Inioluwa Deborah Raji, and Joy Buolamwini (who, as an aside I must note, are each some of the most inspiring, thoughtful and engaged scholars and humans anyone could hope to learn from). It has a number of useful insights for our thinking about the potential to embed collective data governance into organisational practice.

In their interviews with ten leading algorithmic auditors, and a survey of more than 150 people connected to algorithmic audit, they find significant gaps in the involvement of affected stakeholders in the algorithmic audit process, with just 30% of auditors saying that consider real-world harm to stakeholders when auditing algorithms, and only two providing examples of this. As a result, Sasha, Deborah and Joy recommend that_ “It should be a priority for regulators to ensure that audits include affected stakeholders, and for organisations to establish internal policy that promotes direct involvement of the stakeholders most likely to be harmed by AI systems.”_ going on to argue that, whilst participatory practice can be messy, “Solutions should be informed by the existing field of participatory design, and by the growing community of design justice practitioners, and should be supported by a field-wide investment in strategies to meaningfully engage community partners and support community-led processes for algorithmic accountability.”

The paper also describes some of the challenges that internal (first-party), or contracted (second-party) teams involved in algorithmic audit face, in terms of resistance of organisations to engaging with audit processes that might lead to a need to change profitable practices, or restrictions on making audit findings public. This resonates with themes I’ve found in Waldman’s Industry Unbound, around the way in which corporate structures can significantly inhibit the freedom of workers to insert public interests into private enterprise, and points to some of the significant challenges that efforts to embed collective and participatory models of data governance will face.

I’ve also got a few other FAccT papers on my reading list thanks to Catherine D’Ignazio’s fantastic thread that picks out a number of the key findings. In particular, as we explore the point in our Theory of Change (update on that coming soon) that addresses developing a community of practice, this piece on tech worker organising looks particularly important to consider.

Learning to govern

The last two Monday evenings I’ve been undertaking mandatory online training as a new school parent governor at my son’s school. In the UK, over a quarter of a million people volunteer as school governors, taking on a strategic and oversight role for finance, staffing and school development. The training, unsurprisingly, was heavy on running through all the processes and practical activities of governance: from making and writing up school observation visits, to plotting a calendar of policy reviews and a cycle of meetings setting and tracking progress against improvement plans. We also spent some time exploring the different structures of governing boards depending on the type of school (local authority, foundation, multi-school trust etc.), and the different kinds of governor (some appointed by parents, others by the local authority or trust, others from the staff body etc.).

Of course, school governance is very well established, and models have, more-or-less, settled into place (albeit with constant government reforms leading to updates and changes). But reflecting on this day-to-day bit of the national governance infrastructure, and it’s strengths and weaknesses in practice (in the break-out sessions there was a bit of opportunity hear from other governors about how well the theory presented in the training represents the reality in their schools), has me wondering what sort of scale and structure collective data governance at scale might take? Do we need 1000s of people on standing structures, with robust training and development programmes in place, to govern our shared data infrastructures? Or is collective data governance most often going to be a ‘function’ that fits into existing governance structures? Or are there new models entirely that can take the best of new technical approaches, while remaining inclusive, accessible and accountable?

Perhaps, most importantly, the training, and my recent conversations with other people who have experiences in school governance, highlight that governance in practice is, of course, about people. Personalities, a desire of a group to ‘get on’ and a recognition of the need to support resource-constrained teams, can all both help governance work well, and, at the same time, create barriers to effective scrutiny and accountability.

Other things

  • Thanks to a kind invite from Asaf Lubin, I was on a Datasphere panel for the American Society of International Law last week, where our discussions touched on the interaction between agile regulation and public participation, and the need for data policy built on new narratives that understand the global and cross-boundary nature of contemporary data.
  • For a couple of freelance projects with organisations that have defined their strategies around open data, I’ve been trying to write about some of the big trends of the last decade that have been reframing openness. I’ll hopefully have that in a blog post form soon.
  • We had a team meeting day in Reading, which is written up in other’s team notes, and for which I spent some time digging into consultation responses to the Data Reform Bill (thanks to Peter Wells for this super helpful spreadsheet).
  • I’ve been working on updates to our sectoral scoping on debt, again hopefully with more to share soon.
  • I managed to follow most of the launch event for the Education Data Reality report from the Digital Futures Commission while on the train back from Amersfoort (super reliability of Dutch 4G) – which was packed full of useful insights to feed into our scoping of work on education as a sector. In short, there are a lot of questions to ask about how education data is being gathered and used, without a lot of good oversight right now (Note to self: explore whether the school governing board thinks about this at all!)

Weeknotes – June 24th 2022

[Cross-posted from Connected by Data blog]

There are a couple of themes that have run through this week that I’ve been trying to reflect on for this week’s weeknotes. The first of those is around the role of narratives and imagination, and the second, on approaches to legislating around data protection and sharing.

Narratives and imagination

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading Ari Ezra Waldman’s Industry Unbound which provides an account of how even strong privacy advocates within the technology industry become co-opted into serving the goals of data-hungry corporations. This occurs through the reframing of privacy in terms of security, and the articulation of compliance regimes that sidestep substantive privacy issues and instead cast privacy narrowly in terms of transparency/notice and consent. Ari’s account argues that the policy space for thinking about meaningful privacy practice has been intentionally eroded by corporate lobbying, and space for meaningful privacy action within firms has been shut-down by bureacratic organisational practice that means privacy practitioners inside firms are excluded from design decision-making, or downplay concerns to avoid being cut-out of future discussions.

In the context of Data Reform Bill proposals to reduce the independence (or even existence) of Data Protection Officers, and shift towards a more US framework of organisational ‘privacy programmes’, Industry Unbound feels like essential reading. I’m not all the way through yet, but I’m already taking away a deeper appreciation of the hard work we have ahead to make sure any policy proposals Connected by Data may bring forward are, as far as possible, designed with potential patterns of corporate resistance in mind, and shaped to try and protect against the risk of they are simply translated in compliance checkboxes with their force ultimately blunted.

This has got me thinking more about the importance of Connected by Data work on developing and embedding narratives that tap into a broader view of both what we mean by protecting data, and what we mean by data sharing. It’s not enough to have policies that provide the ‘letter of’ participatory data governance, if we’ve not also secured engagement with the ‘spirit’ of the proposals too.

Right now, this feels like quite an uphill task. I was struck in the Living with Data panel I attended at the Data Power conference how difficult it appeared to be for people to imagine collective control over data, and indeed, in many cases, to imagine control over data at all outside of straight resistance to data collection. In a week when the MyData 2022 conference has been talking place in Helsinki, essentially doubling-down on models of individual data sovereighty that do little to disrupt narrow data discourses, we’ve been spending some time, led by Jonathan, on the Connected by Data brand narrative. Central to this is working out how to bring the problems of current data practice more clearly into view, and thinking about ways to support clearer collective imagination about the ways community-centred data governance could transform things.

On my ToDo list for the coming weeks is to work on a blog post on ‘Questions to ask about data governance?’ to try and capture some critical tools to bring into relief the problems with the status quo (reliance on notice and consent; narrowing of both privacy and data sharing concepts; failures of transparency etc.) as a first step to then supporting exploration of alternatives. I also found it useful in preparing for the Open Futures Salon on Thursday to look at the flow-chart of data governance processes they have set-out in their proposal for future Business to Government (B2G) data sharing in Europe, and to reflect on the kinds of participatory governance that might be possible at each level.

I found the State of Open Data panel I chaired on Wednesday was also a powerful reminder of the importance of ‘re-imagination’. Where I had anticipated that our discussions might get drawn into a focus on the deficits around open data and AI, the inputs from Reneta Avilla, Jeni Tennison and Feng Gao all offered a number of points of hope around building more inclusive data futures, putting particularly emphasis on cultures of openness, and the power of openness to support collaborative and imaginative problem solving. Rather than presenting a case to ‘go back’ to the open data of old, they each offered a view of an open data landscape which has become more nuanced, and that has, in practice, adapted to a much more complex landscape of data access and use, even while overarching narratives around an open binary, and open licenses, have not been wholly updated – at least at the global level. From this point, the session started to sketch out a way forward, building on the collaborative potential of open data: something also picked up in a blog post from Leigh Dodds this week. Reflecting on this session makes me reflect on how to make sure the Connected by Data narrative is about the future of data governance, not about recapturing a lost (and fictional) past.

Legislating lists or processes

I noticed an interesting resonnance between the two bits of proposed legislation I’ve had on my radar this week. Both the EU Data Act, and the update on government proposals for the Data Reform Bill, get into the question of listing particular categories of data that might be covered by B2G data sharing, and use by firms without needing to carry out legitimate interest balancing tests, respectively. And in both cases, the process of creating such lists to ‘bake into’ legislation is problematic. Either, legislation is inflexible, or, if mechanisms are put in place (as proposed around the Data Reform Bill) for secondary legislation to add categories, then there are significant concerns about not having adequate scrutiny of new categories, and risks that corporate lobbying will be able to extend or limit data sharing and processing.

In general then, there may be case to be developed for setting out the robust participatory processes that can sit in the place of legislated lists, or at least, that can be embedded as part of the way in which lists may be extended (or indeed curtailed). I’ve more to explore on whether there is precendent in the governance innovation space for this kind of approach (ping me if you’ve got experience here and would be up for a chat!), and to work out some ideas more concretely – but it seems we should be making the case that legislation that embeds space for dialogue and participatory decision making is more likely to be able to cope with the pace of technological change, than legislation that tries, a priori, to identify all the boundaries between frictionless or barrier-encountering data use and sharing.

Other things

  • I had a catch up with Michael Canare’s, where we talked a little about the Data Empowerment framework – which is something I need to dig into a bit more, particularly to explore the interaction of individual and collective empowerment around data.
  • After almost two months not touching a line of code, I worked up some Google Apps Script to get project-classified data from our accounting tool, FreeAgent, into a Google Spreadsheet to help with our financial tracking and reporting. Still some tidying up to do, and then I’ll try and share a version.
  • As of yet, I’ve not had any responses to the e-mails I sent last week to ask for details of company balancing tests.

Next week I’m off to Amsterdam (Monday) and Utrecht (Tuesday) for a bit of freelance work supporting Land Portal with their data strategy – but, on the off-chance, I should have a bit of time free both days if any Netherlands-based collective data governance folk fancy catching up for a chat. Let me know!.

Weeknotes – 17th June 2022

[Cross-posted from Connected by Data blog]

It’s been a week of planning & strategising, in-between two conference and panel-heavy weeks last week and next. On that note, do join me for the State of Open Data panel on AI next Wednesday (1pm BST), and at Open Future’s first salon looking at Business to Government Data Sharing on Thursday. Plus, I’m hoping to make it along to some of the online components of the Data Power conference.

Iterating on the case database

It looks like we’re getting into a good pattern of Monday and Wednesday team meetings, which offers a mix of focus on what we need to deliver (Monday meetings with a work planning spreadsheet) and a space to reflect on what we’re learning through the week (Wednesday meetings, where I experimented this week with bringing a sketch of the case database development for team feedback).

I’ve been getting a bit stuck with working out how to move forward the work I’ve been doing to build a dataset of cases of participatory data governance, particularly working out how to align this with our wider advocacy and practice work. So, picking up on the suggestion that it is sometimes easier to brainstorm in slides than in a prose document, I pulled together a short deck outlining where I’ve got to, and providing some rough mock ups of possible ways to expose the case study research on the Connected by Data website.

Mock up image containing the text: Hundreds of organisations have already been engaging communities in data governance > Explore case studies. Freom public dialogues to citizens panels, tried and tested models exist that can put collective data governance into practice > Explore methods. You don't need to go it along > Connect with othe practitioners. For participation to build trust in data governance, it needs the right fit > Find the approact that will work for you.

Caption: Rough mock up of Connected by Data website with four ‘calls to action’ that build on the case database work.

Feedback from Jeni and Jonathan pointed to a number of useful areas to explore more, including thinking about how far we editorialise cases to highlight our opinions on what best practice is, how we might work with partners to provide a long-term home to any case and method library resource we create, and how, when allowing users to browse by methods, we clearly communicate that effective participatory governance often requires a mix of methods.

In the deck I shared a few experiments that try and get at this latter point – visually presenting the ‘structure’ of the different cases I’ve surveyed to highlight that they involve multiple related components. I had initially thought that it might be possible to generate a ‘graph’ of relationships between components, but experimenting with mermaid.js graphs (And its nifty text to graph syntax) quickly revealed that it was going to be tricky to generate elegant presentations this way. Instead, I turned to a more linear approach to showing the structure of an example case, using icons from the noun project to start to pull out relevant facts about each component of a participatory data governance case, such as whether engagement activities are one-off, repeated, or ongoing, and whether they involved a single group over time, or multiple groups.

Image showing network graph, and linear graph, of case components: Rapid review; Dialogues (weighted sample), participant led research, specificailly impacts group sessions, and analysis and report.

I’m going to do some work in the coming weeks to explore engaging with a designer on a next iteration of this, helping to firm up some of the key concepts we want to communicate about getting the practice of participatory governance right.

Sector selection

As Jeni has explored in her weeknotes, we spent some time this week looking at selecting a small number of sectors in which to focus our work over the next year, settling on a shortlist of debt, education and housing. I’ve started writing up a scoping document for our sectoral focus on Debt, (incorporating consumer finance and gambling) to sketch out some of the key data governance issues, key stakeholders, and potential policy influence opportunities related to data governance. At this stage, the focus is on rapid research to validate whether or not this should be a focus sector for us, and to develop our shared understanding of the scope of the sector.

Campaign strategy

I also spent a bit of time this week talking with Jonathan about our next steps of campaign planning, and how to facilitate our next stage of work on the Data Rights Bill. More on that in the coming weeks.

Other notes

Workshop on Governing Knowledge Commmons

On Monday I dropped into an online session of the Workshop on Governing Knowledge Commons set-up for discussions of ‘half baked research ideas’ linked to smart cities and knowledge commons. There were a couple of really useful insights from the discussions, including tips from Brett Fischman on making sense of complex phenomena (like adoption of smart city technology, or, indeed, collective governance of data) through analysing in different action arenas from Macro (i.e. how is the city as a whole adopting a collective approach to data governance?), to Meso (how is work in the housing sector in the city adopting collective data governance?), to Micro (how is a particular project making use of a collective approach to data governance?).

Katherine Strandberg pointed to the particular features of the Governing Knowledge Commons (GKC) framework, as opposed to Ostrom’s commons governance work, in dealing with the fact that “knowledge commons are especially likely to have impact (positive or negative) beyond the community obviously involved in creating the knowledge”, such as in cases of patients involved in rare disease research.

In response to some of my musing on how we can use our Connected by Data case research to understand the kinds of governance appropriate to different situations, Brett offered the concept of externalities as one tool to use. Depending on the data and context in play, there may be different positive or negative externalities from data collection and use to worry about, and different kinds of governance institutions may be more or less effective at managing these.

Indigenous Data Sovereignty

Thanks to Jeff Doctor for sparing the time to chat through some of the ways Indigenous tech firm Animikii are thinking about data governance, and about some of the data (and wider) issues facing Indigenous communities. We touched on the challenge of identifying the legitimate collectives that have a role in governing data, particularly in cases where the claim of states to jurisdiction over territory and peoples remains contested, and the need to recognise the ongoing struggle that many Indigenous people face to find security, and to avoid being criminalised or marginalised through data-driven forms of surveillance and control. This brings into relief some of the challenge of designing participatory data governance approaches that engage those most affected by data use, whilst respecting that the point at which individuals and communities most experience data-based harms may be the point at which they have least capacity to engage in wider governance debates.

It was also insightful, amidst the talk that sometimes comes up around the Datasphere initiative of navigating data governance in a post-Westphalian order, to be reminded of the many Indigenous nation’s claims on land, that have long challenged the settled international boundaries taken for granted in so much work. Jeff pointed me in particular to the Land Rights statement of The Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee, making a connection between data rights and land rights.

RightsCon

Building on last week’s weeknotes, I added a few bits into our write up of RightsCon which you can find here.

Visualising processes

On Wednesday I had a catch up with Mel Flanagan of Nook Studios, whose work seeks to make complex processes much more accessible through careful information design. Mel shared updates on the work they have been doing to join the dots between different open government initiatives and data silos, but we also talked briefly about ways the process-visualisations developed for this could be applied in data governance dialogue processes.

Legitimate interests research

Lastly, I ended the week by firing off a few ‘test requests’ for Legitimate Interest balancing tests from a selection of companies whose privacy policies invite users to request these.

Using the Princeton-Leuven Longitudinal Privacy Policy Dataset I’ve searched for “balancing test” and then identified a number of large websites that have text in their current privacy policies to the effect that: they process certain data on the basis of legitimate interests; they have carried out balancing tests; these balancing tests can be requested by emailing them.

Conscious of the controversy from the Princeton-Radboud Study on Privacy Law Implementation which sent simulated messages to request GDPR related implementation information to a large number of websites, triggering significant work by in-house legal teams, I’ve taken care to clearly identify in the outgoing messages that this is part of Connected by Data research work, and is not strictly a customer request, so I will be interested to see what replies, if any, we get.

This will help shape any future research work into how balancing tests are currently used, particularly relevant with the upcoming details of the Data Reform Bill.

(Mid-)weeknotes – 1st June 2022

[Cross-posted from Connected by Data blog]

These weeknotes are falling a little late, but as the Jubilee double bank holiday in the UK means it’s now a really short-week, I’ll cover two weeks for the price of one, while trying to focus in on just a few themes from the last 12 days of CONNECTED BY DATA work.

Narrative, Policy & Practice

A big focus of last week was our first team day. Besides being fantastic to properly meet my new colleague Jonathan, and have the day working face-to-face with Jeni and Jonathan, we were able to take a deep-dive into some of our Theory of Change, and to think about what it means to frame CONNECTED BY DATA as a campaign.

One of the key insights for me from the day was to more clearly articulate our position as a ‘bridge’. It’s not that there is a shortage of great thinking and experimentation out there about taking more collective approaches to data governance, nor that there is an absence of policy appetite for addressing data governance challenges. The gap to be addressed is arguably around testing, translating and communicating how data can be done differently. As Jeni has explored in her weeknotes, this involves being able to better articulate both the manifest harms from current data practices, and less tangible impacts that come from the data traces of our lives being treated as a natural resource for commercial exploitation.

I have the feeling that focussing on this bridging role will be really important to scope our future research work, and identify the kinds of activities that fit well within CONNECTED BY DATA , and those that we might support and work on with partners, but not directly lead on.

Framing governance & decision making

In a couple of conversations in the last two weeks, including a research design session with the team at Research ICT Africa, I’ve been feeling the need for a clearer conceptual map of where data governance decisions are made. In short, I’m looking to have a clearer articulation of the activities that data governance addresses (data collection, design, analysis, use, sharing, etc.), and the particular tools of governance, such as setting principles and policies, operational decision making, oversight, scrutiny and evaluation.

In thinking about what it means to make decisions more participatory, I’ve spent a bit of time looking back over my past work on youth participation: in particular a 2008 Open University Study Guide that accompanied a chapter in Leading Work with Young People. One of the study activities we included there was to ask youth workers to document every decision made as part of a recent event or session, and then to work out which were the decisions that mattered. The point was to emphasise that empowerment does not come from simply sharing every decision: but involves working out which decisions need to be shared, and what kind of participatory process there needs to be around them.

I was also struck reading Katya Abazajian’s critique of the use of Open 311 data (which, incidentally, hints at many broader issues of collective data governance) by the discussion of how the way questions are framed significantly shapes the outcomes.

We also touched on this point a little at our team day when Aidan Peppin from the Ada Lovelace Institute joined and shared insights from the public dialogues and citizen’s juries that he has been involved in. While some dialogues have led to participants adopting quite collective language for thinking about their _data, others have taken a more individualistic tone. As Jonathan has explored, some of this seems to be to do with how people feel about the _institutions behind the data. It also appears related to the framing of the subject matter being considered (health data vs. location data for example). However, I’m curious as to whether there are particular ways to sensitively offer collective language into public dialogues on data.

I had a go at thinking about this in providing some asynchronous feedback into the stakeholder group for a Data Stewardship Dialogue being run by the Open Data Institute for the NHS AI Lab, where I tried to draw out the distinction between ‘collective decision making’, in terms of decisions made by a group (but where participants may still be making their decisions based on individualism and self-interest, and the outcome might be based on simple majority voting for example), and ‘decision making for collective benefit’, where the process encourages greater thinking about our interdependence.

Building on all of this, in the next few weeks I’ll be seeking out, or sketching out, some sort of small methodological tools that might help with better mapping out and describing the detail of data governance decision making, to sharpen up how we both research existing practice, and how we frame our vision of what future policy and practice should be.

Other things

  • I was left scrambling a bit on Tuesday when my main work computer, just about to be used to webcast a community meeting hosted at the lovely Stroud Brewery, had a run-in with a pint of ale. It’s at the repair shop hopefully drying out – but thank goodness for backups (apart, frustratingly, for five hours worth of data governance literature review write-up).
  • I’ve submitted our proposal for a session on Collective Data Governance at the Internet Governance Forum (thanks to everyone who contributed!), and have been in conversations about a few other convening opportunities around research and policy, including chats with Christian Perone from ITS Rio, and Preeti Raghunath from Monash University.
  • It was great to connect with other Datasphere Initiative fellows for our monthly meeting on Friday – where we were also hearing from Martin Pompéry of SINE Foundation on some of their work deploying both technical and organisational approaches to govern data sharing for carbon emission reporting across supply chains.
  • I’ve been listening to this interview between Divya Siddarth and Douglas Rushkoff on Team Human, which offers some great insights into how tech communities are drawing on concepts of co-ops, commons and the pluriverse, including weaving it into the Declaration on the Interdependence of Cyberspace.
  • I’m looking forward to being a delegate at RightsCon next week, and have been starting to put together a list of sessions to tune into over the week, as well as planning to keep my diary a bit more open for ad-hoc remote-conferencing connections.

Weeknotes – 20th May 2022

[Cross-posted from Connected by Data blog]

It’s been a week of both thinking big about how we might, in the coming months and years, shift public and policy narratives about collective data governance, and focussing in on the details of what it might mean in practice to make data governance more participatory. In the iterative process of building out our case study database, and reviewing reports from a number of public dialogues, citizen’s juries and participatory processes linked to data governance, I’ve been reflecting on three themes, outlined under inevitably alliterative headings below.

Defaults and decisions

Skimming the Ada Lovelace review on UK Public Attitudes to regulating data and data-driven technologies reveals a fairly clear picture, and one backed up by many of the data dialogue reports I’ve read this week , that the public want to see more and better regulation of data, and expect innovative uses of data to be aligned with the public good.

At the same time, the Ada Lovelace review finds that “more research is needed on what the public expects ‘better’ regulation to look like” and ”determining what constitutes ‘public benefit’ from data requires ongoing engagement with the public”.

Having noticed that a lot of the cases I’ve gathered so far of public dialogue around data governance tend to inform, or design, fairly general principles or recommendations on how data should be handled, I’m finding it useful to think about participatory data governance on two levels:

1) How should public input shape the defaults that are in place for any uses of data?

There may be different defaults for different sectors, or potentially for different user groups (although Afsaneh Rigot’s recent report on Design from the Margins would suggest there are strong advantages in setting the overall default based on the needs of those most affected by a technology).

Not every organisation with data to govern will necessarily need to run its own engagement process to identify the right defaults: in many cases, desk research might identify clear public-backed principles to work with.

The legitimacy of any defaults may be affected by the extent to which they are derived from considering the particular impacts that a category or type of data may have, and the extent to which populations and communities affected by those impacts were part of developing the defaults.

2) What are the appropriate mechanisms for public engagement in the specific decisions that put those defaults into practice?

Where default setting might be periodic or one-off, there are many aspects of data governance which require day-to-day engagement. Where broad public engagement might be important for setting defaults, making decisions might require more focussed approaches, potentially with participants who have more background, training or ongoing role. I’m particularly interested in the coming weeks to try and explore different models being applied to data governance here: whether focussed on shaping decisions, sharing decisions, or providing scrutiny to decisions made.

The purpose of participation

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the distinction between different institutional designs for data governance (including novel proposals for trusts, commons and co-ops), and questions of how decisions actually get made whatever the institutional structure. I was particularly struck by this critical piece from Rachel Adams at Research ICT Africa on the problems of reaching for a data trusts model in an African context.

I’ve found it helpful (this week at least!) to break down my thinking as follows:

  • Fundamentally, participation aims to align the outcomes of any process with the interests of those affected by it.

    (This is compatible with recognising that some interests, and the way people or communities understand or articulate them, are not fixed, and may be refined or revised through participatory process).

  • In the context of democratically governed public authorities, competitive markets, and/or a balance of power between actors, then participatory processes can help to align the interests of data powers and communities; but
  • In conditions of vastly unequal power, other institutional mechanisms are required to create conditions in which the interests of authorities or firms and communities will end up aligned.

    Mechanisms, for example, like trusts, commons or co-ops that seek to change where decisions are made, and what the backstops are to protect against individual, private or external interests being put above community or collective interests.

Thinking about the purpose of participation in terms of aligning actions or outcomes from data governance with the interests of the populations affected also brings into relief the points that (a) different communities may have interests that are not aligned, or even entirely compatible; and (b) a lot hinges on how the community whose interests are to be explored is defined.

Components, connections and configurations

I’ve been starting to reflect on how to present the relationship between different parts of the participatory data governance cases I’ve been gathering. The case study schema has each case with multiple components that feed into each other, so that, for example, a citizens jury case might be broken down into the initial desk review and design, feeding into a set of roundtables that design materials, which are then used by main jury events, and which feed into an analysis process that produces a report. I’ve been thinking about whether it is useful to present this schematically (essentially a graph of the component relationships), and how this might also start to show where the participation process interfaces with organisational decisions. I might manage to get a quick prototype sorted soon.

Other stuff

I’ve also been:

Weeknotes – May 13th 2022

[Cross-posted from Connected by Data blog]

It’s been a busy week, not least because on Wednesday the project I was working on just before joining the Connected by data team, the Global Data Barometer, had its launch event. Alongside sharing, celebrating and reflecting on the Barometer, I’ve been digging deep into the development of a schema for our work to gather examples of collective data governance, and I’ve been thinking about potential events and convenings Connected by data might be part of in the coming year. Plus writing up some thoughts on what the implementation of social audits for India’s rural employment scheme in Andhra Pradesh can teach us about data governance, an initial bit of work on fundraising, and sending the first of many emails out to set up conversations with researchers I’m hoping to get some input from.

Cases, components and templates

I’ve been going through daily iterations to develop the structure for our case study database, taking a couple of different approaches to explore the right prompts, categories and structures that might create a useful library of collective data governance examples. I’ve been exploring:

  • adding the classification categories, and library of methods, from Participedia as lookup tables, and using them as a starting point, but adding/expanding categories when needed. This has been particularly useful when it comes to methods, as when I’m considering coding a case against a given method I can check the detailed Participedia description to check whether the code is appropriate. I’ve also set-up one-click searching so I can see if the way I initially think a category should be used matches how it has been used by Participedia contributors.

Case database draft schema

  • coding up one case each day, and, if needed, modifying the case database schema to capture it better, before going back to re-code existing cases with the modifications. This has led to a ‘case’, ‘component’ and ‘method’ separation, so that any case of collective data governance might involve multiple components (e.g. design workshops; citizens jury & opinion polling), and these are each treated as particular cases of applying one or more participatory methods.
  • drafting user stories (‘As an X I need Y so that Z’) to get a clearer sense of who the case database is for, and why. Thinking about the categories and data that users might actually want provides a useful counterbalance to the temptation to keep adding fields and more nuance when starting from reading diverse individual cases.
  • writing out a templated summary paragraph for a case, and then working out the different variables needed to populate it. I’ve found it particularly useful to then frame the prompts in the case database around these sentence components, making it easier to think about how each category will be used when the case database is made available to others.

Screenshot of templated summary paragraph

Next week I’ll be trying to get a few more cases documented, and then to start exploring strategies to make sure we cover a wide range of kinds of examples. Right now, the examples I’ve coded up, and those in the pipeline, have a strong leaning towards participatory processes that generate quite general recommendations, rather than processes that directly shape or make specific data governance decisions.

Events and outreach

I started the week by registering forRightsCon, which is taking place online from 6 – 10th June. It’s a long time since I’ve been able to focus on attending a conference, rather than juggling logging into one or two virtual sessions between other work, so I’m looking forward to that.

On our discord I raised the possibility of proposing a workshop to the 2022 Internet Governance Forum on Collective Data Governance, and I’ll be sketching that out more next week and looking to see if we have potential collaborators.

We’ve also been starting to think about other potential events or outreach activities we might want to plan for, and I’ve done some initial work on research fundraising strategy: although realising I’ve got quite a bit of work to do in order to identify how to best track research funding opportunities that are well-aligned with what we want to do.

Participation, pluralism and the public good

I put out a thread of reflections on the launch of the Global Data Barometer, but want to pick up in particular on one in these notes. The Barometer study is framed around “data for the public good”. One of the big conceptual challenges for the design of the project which was taking place in 2019/2020, was balancing demands for cross-country comparison, with an openness to diversity of data governance, provision and use practices.

In the introduction to the report we wrote:

“Fundamentally, our approach to the public good recognizes that the construction of public good is an ongoing, unfinished and contested process. “

And

“There are many publics, many different visions of how society should be organized, and there are many views on the goals we should individually and collectively work towards.”

But, particularly after starting to read a copy of Pluriverse – a post development dictionary which arrived last week, I’m not sure the more pluralist ambitions of the project were fully realised (understandably so). With hindsight, and the framings of Connected by data, I suspect some of that might have been addressed by giving greater prominence to questions of participation in metrics on data governance.

However, the Barometer method also required each metric to make reference to globally agreed norms or principles that would support country assessment on that point. This raises the interesting question of which global norms can already ground a collective and participatory model of data governance, and where there are significant policy gaps that might need addressing to put communities at the heart of data governance.

Other reading this week

  • Bussu, S. et al. (2022) ‘Embedding participatory governance’, Critical Policy Studies – a compelling case to talk about embedding, rather than (or in addition to) institutionalising participatory governance, considering temporal (sustained over time), spatial (including presence of participation in different decision making spaces) and practice (habitual recourse to participatory process) dimensions of embeddedness.
  • Van de Velde, L. (2022) Gender and Beneficial Ownership Transparency– paper from Open Ownership that explores some of the tensions in designing datasets, particularly when it comes to the potential for data collected for one task (beneficial ownership transparency), to be used for other public goods (e.g. promoting greater gender equity in enterprise). I’m curious how a more collective and participatory data governance lens might help address some of the issues the paper explores. But – ran out of time to explore that in depth.

New role & weeknotes: we are connected by data

[Summary: new role focussing on participatory data governance, and starting to write weeknotes]

Last week I started a new role as Research Director for Connected by data, a new non-profit established by Jeni Tennison to focus on shifting narratives and practice around data governance. It’s a dream job for me, not least for the opportunity to work with Jeni, but also because it brings together two strands that have been woven throughout my work, but that I’ve rarely been able to bring together so clearly: governance of technology and participatory practice.

You can find the Connected by data strategic vision and roadmap here describing our mission to “put community at the centre of data narratives, practices and policies”, and our goals to work on challenging individual frameworks of data ownership, whilst showing how collective models offer a clearer way forward. We’ll also be developing practical guidance that helps organisations to adopt collective and participatory decision making practice, and a key focus for the first few weeks of my work is on building a library of potential case studies to learn from in identifying what works in the design of more participatory data governance.

Jeni’s organisational designs for Connected by data include a strong commitment to working in the open, and one of the practices we’re going to be exploring is having all team members produce public ‘weeknotes’ summarising activities, and most importantly, learning from the week. You can find the full of weeknotes over here, but in the interests of trying to capture my learning here too (and inviting any feedback from anyone still following this blog), I’ll try and remember to cross-post here too.

Last week’s weeknotes (6th May)

Hello! It’s the end of my first week as Research Director (and with the May day holiday in the UK, it’s been a short week too). I’ve been getting stuck into the research strand of the roadmap, as well as checking off some of the more logistical tasks like getting different calendars to talk to each other (calmcalendar to the rescue), posting my Bio on the website here, and setting up new systems. On that note, thanks to Jeni for the tip on logseq which seems to be working really nicely for me so far as both a knowledge-base, and a journal for keeping track of what’s happened each week to make writing up weeknotes easier.

The week has been bookended by scoping out how we’ll develop case studies of where organisations have adopted participatory approaches in data governance. I’ve started an AirTable dataset of potential case leads, and have been looking at if/how we could align some of our data collection with the data model used by Participedia (an open wiki of participation cases and methods). Over the next few weeks I’m anticipating an iterative process of working out the questions we need to ask about each case, and the kinds of classifications of cases we want to apply.

The middle of the week was focussed on responding to a new publication from the Global Partnership on Sustainable Development Data’s Data Values Project: a white paper on Reimagining Data and Power. The paper adopts a focus on collective engagement with data, and on participatory approaches to data design, collection, governance and use, very much aligned with the Connected by data agenda. Not only was the paper a source of a number of potential case study examples, but it also prompted a number of useful questions I’m hoping to explore more in coming weeks around the importance/role of data literacy in participatory data governance, and the interaction of what the paper terms ‘informal’ participatory models, with formal models of regulation and governance. Some of those thoughts are captured in this twitter thread about the report, and this draft response to the Data Values Project consultation call for feedback.

I also spent some time reviewing Jeni’s paper on ‘What food regulation teaches us about data governance’, and reflecting in particular on how the food analogy works in the context of international trade, and cross-border flows.

Finally, I’ve been helping the Global Data Barometer team put some finishing touches to the first edition report which will (finally!) launch next week. Although I handed over the reigns on the Global Data Barometer project to Silvana Fumega in the middle of last year, I’ve been back working on the final report since December: both on the data analysis and writing, and, trying (not always successfully) to have a reproducible workflow from data to report. Data governance is one of the key pillars of the report: although in the first edition there is relatively little said about _participatory _approaches, at least on the data creation and governance side. I’ll aim to write a bit more about that next week, and to explore whether there are missing global metrics that might help us understand how far a more collective approach to data is adopted or enacted around the world.

Global Data Barometer – First Edition published

[Summary: Data and analysis on ‘data for the public good’ across 109 countries.] 

On Wednesday the first edition of the Global Data Barometer was published. You can find the full report here, and all the data from the study for download is here. 

I was involved in setting up the Barometer project back in 2019/2020, and had the privilege of coming back into the project in December to work on the final report.  

I’ve written up a bit more background and reflection in this twitter thread:

It’s already encouraging to see all the places the Barometer findings and data are being picked up, and whilst getting the report out feels like the finish line for, what has been, both marathon and sprint for the team – having the data out there for further analysis also feels like the starting line for lots of deeper research and exploration. 

In particular, it feels like debates about ‘data for the public good’ have been developing at pace in parallel to the Barometer’s data collection, and I’m keen to see both how the Barometer data can contribute to those debates, and what future editions of the project might need to learn from the way in which data governance debates are shaping up in 2022.

A look at the UK Open Government Partnership 2021-23 National Action Plan

[Summary: Critical reflections and comments on the context and content of the UK’s 2021-23 Open Government Partnership National Action Plan]

Screenshot of https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-national-action-plan-for-open-government-2021-2023/uk-national-action-plan-for-open-government-2021-2023

If you’re in the UK, you might be excused for paying more attention to the other report released today, but around the same time as Sue Gray’s report on rule-breaking lockdown parties at Number 10 Downing Street was published, the UK’s 2021-23 Open Government Partnership National Action Plan (NAP) also surfaced on gov.uk.

I was involved in civil society aspects of developing of the UK’s 2nd and 3rd NAPs, and have written critiques of the others, so, although I’ve had minimal involvement in this NAP (I attended a few of the online engagement sessions, mainly on procurement transparency commitments, before they appeared to peter out) I thought I should try and unpack this one in the same kind of way.

By way of context, it’s a very tough time to be trying to advance the open government agenda in the UK. With Sue Gray’s report, and Prime Ministerial responses to it today, confirming the lack of integrity and the culture of dishonesty at the very centre of Number 10; just over a week after a ministerial resignation at the despatch box over government failures to manage billions of pounds of fraud during the COVID response; and on the day that government promised to pursue a post-Brexit deregulatory agenda; we have rarely faced a greater need, yet a less hospitable environment, for reforms that can strengthen checks and balances on government power, reduce space for corrupt behaviour, and bring citizens into dialogue about solving pressing environmental, social and political problems. As a key Cabinet Office civil servant notes, it’s a credit to all involved from the civil service and civil society, that the NAP was published at all in such difficult circumstances. But, although the plans’ publication shows that embers of open government are still there in Whitehall, the absence of a ministerial foreword, the lack of ambition in the plan, and the apparent lack of departmental ownership for the commitments it does contain (past plans listed the responsible stakeholder for commitments; this one does not), suggests that the status of open government in the UK, and the political will to take action on government reform within the international framework of the OGP, has fallen even further than in 2019.

When I wrote about the 2019 plan, I concluded that “The Global OGP process is doing very little to spur on UK action”. Since then, the UK has been called out and placed under review by the OGP Criteria & Standards Subcommittee in 2021 for missing action plan deadlines, and falling short of minimum requirements for public involvement in NAP development. Today’s published plan appears to admit that not enough has yet been done to rectify this, noting that:

In order to meet this criteria the government will amend and develop the initial commitment areas in NAP5 with civil society over the course of 2022.

Notably, past promises to civil society of adding to commitments to the NAP after the OGP deadline were not met (in part, if I recall correctly, because of issues with how this would interact with the OGP’s Independent Review Mechanism process), and so, with this line, civil society have a tactical choice to make: whether to engage in seeking to secure updates to the plan with assurance these will be taken forward, or whether to focus on ‘outsider’ strategies to put pressure on future UK OGP engagement. As Gavin Freeguard writes, we may be running up against the limits of “a one-size-fits-all international process that can’t possibly fit into the rhythms and rituals of UK government”. If this is so, then there is a significant challenge ahead to find any other drivers that can help secure meaningful open governance reforms in the UK: recognising that the coming years may be as much about the work of shoring up, and repair, as about securing grand new commitments.

A look at NAP5 commitments

Given the wider context, it hardly seems worth offering a critique of the individual commitments (but, erm, I ended up writing one anyway…) . It’s certainly difficult to extract any sense of a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound) milestone from any of them, and those that do appear to have some sort of measurable target betray a woeful lack of ambition*.

Take for example “publishing 90% of ‘above threshold’ contract awards within 90 days calendar days [of award presumably]”. Not only does that leave absolutely massive loopholes (any contract that it would be convenient not to publish could fall into the 10%; and 90-days takes disclosure of information on awards far beyond the period during which economic operators who lose out on a bid could be able to challenge a decision), but, this is more or less a commitment rolled over from the last National Action Plan. Surely, with the learning from the last few years of procurement scandals, and learning from the fact that Open Contracting commitments from the past have been poorly implemented, a credible National Action Plan would be calling for wholesale reform of procurement publication, following other OGP members who make award publication a binding part of a contract being enforceable, or invoices against it payable?

(*To be clear: I believe the vast majority of the fault for this lies with Ministers, not with the other individuals inside and outside government who have engaged in the NAP process in good faith).

Other milestones are almost comical in their framing. I’m not sure I’ve seen a sentence squeeze in quite as many caveats as the ‘commitment’ to build on the interesting but limited foundations of a draft Algorithmic Transparency ‘Data’ ‘Standard’, by working:

with internal and external stakeholders to gauge the feasibility of conducting a scoping exercise focused on mapping existing legal requirements for appeal mechanisms, for example due to administrative law, data protection law, or domain-specific legislation; with a view to sharing this information with the public. [my emphasis]

If I’m reading this right that could well be: a conversation with unspecified stakeholders to gauge whether it’s even possible to work out the scope of a mapping that then may or may not take place, may nor may not be comprehensive, and may or may not result in outputs shared with the public. Even read more charitably (let’s assume the scoping exercise involves the mapping. not just scopes it!), surely the point of the National Action Plan development process is have the conversations with internal and external stakeholders to ‘gauge the feasibility’ of an open government action taking place?

Others have commented on the backsliding in commitments to Open Justice, and I’ll leave it to those more involved at present in combatting the UK’s role in Illicit Financial Flows to comment on the limited new commitments there. However, I do want to pick up two comments on the health section in the NAP. Firstly, while inclusion of health within the NAP, as a topic much more legible in many people’s daily lives (and not only in the last two years) than topics like procurement or stolen asset recovery, is broadly welcome, the health section betrays a worrying lack of distinction between:

• Patient data;

• Health system data;

The State of Open Data: Histories and Horizon’s chapter on Health offers a useful model for thinking about this. In general, Open Government should be concerned with planning and operational data, service information, and research outputs. Where open government and personal data meet, it should be about the protection of individuals data rights: recognising elements of citizen privacy as foundational for open government.

Openness of data based on type and intended use (Source: State of Open Data - Mark Irura)
Appropriate openness/transparency of health data based on type and intended use (Source: State of Open Data – Mark Irura)

In practice, when we talk of transparency, we need to be very clear to distinguish transparency about how (personal) health data is used (generally a good thing), and transparency of (personal) health data (usually a sign that something has gone profoundly wrong with data protection!). To talk about transparency of health data without qualifiers risks messy policy making, and undermining trust in both open government and health data practices. After reading it over a few times, I *think*Objective 1: accountability and transparency’ under the health heading is about being transparent and accountable about how data is used,  but there is little room for sloppy drafting in these matters. The elision of agendas to create large health datasets (with mixed public and private-sector users), with the open government agenda, has been something civil society have had to be consistently watchful of in the history of UK NAPs, and it appears this time around is no different.

Secondly, and perhaps related, it’s not at all clear to me why a a “standards and interoperability strategy for adoption across health and adult social care” (under Health ‘Objective 2: Data standards and interoperability’) belongs in an Open Government National Action Plan. Sure, the UK health system could benefit from greater interoperability of clinical systems, and this might have an impact on patient welfare. But the drivers for this are not open government: they are patient care. And an OGP National Action Plan is going to do little to move the needle on a challenge that the health sector has been tackling for decades (I recall conversations around the dining room table with my Dad, then an NHS manager, twenty years ago, about the latest initiatives then to move towards standardised models for interoperable patient data and referrals).

It might seem hair-splitting to say that certain reforms to government fall outside the scope of open government, but for the concept to be meaningful it can’t mean all and any reform of government systems. If we were talking about ways of engaging citizens in the design process for interoperability standards, and thinking critically about the political and social impact that categorisations within health records have, we might have something worthy of an open government plan, but we don’t. Instead, we have an uncritical focus on centralising data, and a development approach that will only involve “vendors, suppliers, digital technologists, app developers and the open source community”, but not actual care-service users, or people affected by the system design*.

(*I know that in practice there are many fantastic service and technology designers around the NHS who are both critically aware of the cost and benefit tradeoffs of health system interoperability, and a personal/professional commitment to work with service users in all design work; but the absence of service-users from the text of the NAP commitment is notable.)

Lastly, the plan includes a placeholder for forthcoming commitments on “Local transparency”, to be furnished by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) sometime in 2022. In past rounds of the NAP, civil society published a clear vision for the commitments they would like to see under certain headings, and the NAP has named the civil society partners working to develop and monitor commitments. Not this time around it seems. Whilst OGP colleagues in Northern Ireland have been running workshops to talk about open local government, I can’t find evidence of any conversations that might show what might fall under this heading when, or if, the current Westminster NAP evolves.

Still looking for a way forward…

As I wrote in 2019, I generally prefer my blogging (and engagement) to be constructive: but that’s not been easy recent Open Government processes in the UK. At the same time, I did leave a recent session on ‘The (Absolute) State of Open Government’ at the latest UKOpenGovCamp unconference feeling surprisingly optimistic. Whilst any political will from the Conservative government for meaningful open government is, at least at present, sorely lacking, open working cultures within some pockets of government seem to have been remarkably resilient, and even appear to have deepened over the course of the pandemic. The people of open government are still there, even if the political leadership and policies are missing in action.

All the ambitious, necessary, practical and SMART commitment ideas that didn’t make it into this NAP need to be implementation-ready for any openings for reform that may come in the volatile near-future of UK politics. Just as civil society successfully used the UK’s Chairmanship and hosting of the OGP Summit back in 2012/13 to lock in stronger open beneficial ownership data commitments, civil society needs to be ready with ideas that, while they may get no traction right now, might find an audience, moment and leverage in future – at least if we manage to protect and renew our currently fragile democratic system.

I’ve long said that the OGP should be a space for the UK to learn from other countries: forgoing ideas of UK exceptionalism, and recognising that polities across the world have grapled with the kinds of problems of populist and unaccountable leadership we’re currently facing. As I work on finalising the Global Data Barometer Report, I’ll be personally paying particular attention to the ideas and examples from colleagues across OGP civil society that are particularly relevant to learn from.

And if you are in anyway way interested in open government in the UK, even though the process right now feels rather stuck and futile, you can sign-up to the UK civil society Open Government Network mailing list to be ready to get involved in revitalising open government action in the UK when the opportunity is there (or, perhaps, when we collectively make it arise).