Monthly Archives: December 2014

Internet Monitor 2014 chapter on Data Revolutions: Bottom-Up Participation or Top-Down Control?

Internet Monitor[Summary: cross-posting article from from the 2014 Internet Monitor]

The 2014 Internet Monitor Report has just been launched. It’s packed with over 35 quick reads on the landscape of contemporary Internet & Society issues, from platforms and policy, to public discourse. This years edition also includes a whole section on ‘Data and privacy’. My article in the collection, written earlier this year, is below to archive. I encourage you to explore the whole collection – including some great inputs from Sara Watson and Malavika Jayaram exploring how development agencies are engaging with data, and making the case for building better maps of the data landscape to inform regulation and action.

Data Revolutions: Bottom-Up Participation or Top-Down Control?

In September 2015, through the United Nations, governments will agree upon a set of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replacing the expired Millennium Development Goals and setting new globally agreed targets on issues such as ending poverty, promoting healthy lives, and securing gender equality.1 Within debates over what the goals should be, discussions of online information and data have played an increasingly important role.

Firstly, there have been calls for a “Data Revolution” to establish better monitoring of progress towards the goals: both strengthening national statistical systems and exploring how “big data” digital traces from across the Internet could enable real-time monitoring.2 Secondly, the massive United Nations-run MyWorld survey, which has used online, mobile, and offline data collection to canvas over 4 million people across the globe on their priorities for future development goals, consistently found “An honest and accountable government” amongst people’s top five priorities for the SDGs.3 This has fueled advocacy calls for explicit open government goals requiring online disclosure of key public information such as budgets and spending in order to support greater public oversight and participation.

These two aspects of “data revolution” point to a tension in the evolving landscape of governments and data. In the last five years, open data movements have made rapid progress spreading the idea that government data (from data on schools and hospitals locations to budget datasets and environmental statistics) should be “open by default”: published online in machine-readable formats for scrutiny and re-use. However, in parallel, cash-strapped governments are exploring the greater use of private sector data as policy process inputs, experimenting with data from mobile networks, social media sites, and credit reference agencies amongst others (sometimes shared by those providers under the banner of “data philanthropy”). As both highly personal and commercially sensitive data, these datasets are unlikely to ever be shared en-masse in the public domain, although this proprietary data may increasingly drive important policy making and implementation.

In practice, the evidence so far suggests that the “open by default” idea is struggling to translate into widespread and sustainable access to the kinds of open data citizens and civil society need to hold powerful institutions to account. The multi-country Open Data Barometer study found that key accountability datasets such as company registers, budgets, spending, and land registries are often unavailable, even where countries have adopted open data policies.4 And qualitative work in Brazil has found substantial variation in how the legally mandated publication of spending data operates across different states, frustrating efforts to build up a clear picture of where public money flows.5 Furthermore, studies regularly emphasize the need not only to have data online, but also the need for data literacy and civil society capacity to absorb and work with the data that is made available, as well as calling for the creation of intermediary ecosystems that provide a bridge between “raw” data and its civic use.

Over the last year, open data efforts have also had to increasingly grapple with privacy questions.6 Concerns have been raised that even “non-personal” datasets released online for re-use could be combined with other public and private data and used to undermine privacy.7 In Europe, questions over what constitutes adequate anonymization for opening public data derived from personally identifying information have been hotly debated.8

The web has clearly evolved from a platform centered on documents to become a data-rich platform. Yet, it is public policy that will shape whether it is ultimately a platform that shares data openly about powerful institutions, enabling bottom up participation and accountability, or whether data traces left online become increasingly important, yet opaque, tools of governance and control. Both open data campaigners and privacy advocates have a key role in securing data revolutions that will ultimately bring about a better balance of power in our world.


  • 1: UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development,” 2013, HLP_P2015_Report.pdf.
  • 2: Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution,
  • 3: MyWorld Survey,
  • 4: World Wide Web Foundation, “Open Data Barometer,” 2013, http://www.opendatabarometer. org.
  • 5: N. Beghin and C. Zigoni, “Measuring open data’s impact of Brazilian national and sub-national budget transparency websites and its impacts on people’s rights,” 2014,
  • 6: Open Data Research Network, “Privacy Discussion Notes,” 2013, open-data-privacy-discussion-notes.
  • 7: Steve Song, “The Open Data Cart and Twin Horses of Accountability and Innovation,” June 19, 2013, https://
  • 8: See the work of the UK Anonymisation Network,

(Article under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)