In just over a weeks time I’l be heading for Geneva to take part in Diplo Foundation’s ‘E-Participation Day: towards a more open UN?’ event. In the past I’ve worked with Diplo on remote participation, using the web to support live online participation in face-to-face meetings such as the Internet Governance Forum. This time I’ll be talking open data – exploring the ways in which changing regimes around data stand to impact International Organisations. This blog post was written for the Diplo blog as an introduction to some of the themes I might explore.
The event will, of course, have remote participation – so you can register to join in-person or online for free here.
E-participation and remote hubs have the potential to open up dialogue and decision making. But after the conferences have been closed, and the declarations made, it is data that increasingly shapes the outcome of international processes. Whether it’s the numbers counted up to check on progress towards the millennium development goals, GDP percentage pledges on aid spending, or climate change targets, the outcomes of international co-operation frequently depend on the development and maintenance of datasets.
The adage that ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’ has relevance both for International Organisations and for citizens. The better the flows of data International Organisations can secure access to, the greater their theoretical capacity for co-ordination of complex systems. And the greater the flows of information from the internal workings of International Organisations that citizens, states and pressures groups can access, the greater their theoretical capacity to both scrutinise decisions and to get involved in decision making and implementation. I say theoretical capacity, because the picture is rarely that straightforward in practice. Yet, that complexity aside for a moment, over the last few years the idea has been gaining ground that, in some states has led to not only a greater flow of data, but has driven a veritable flood – with hundreds and thousands of government datasets placed online for anyone to access and re-use. That idea is open data.
Open Data is a simple concept. Organisations holding datasets should place them online, in machine-readable formats, and under licenses that let anyone re-use them. Advocates explain that this brings a myriad of benefits. For example, rather than finance data being locked up in internal finance systems, only available to auditors, open data on budgets and spending can be published on the web for anyone to download and explore in their spreadsheet software, or to let third parties generate visualisations that show citizens where their money is being spent, and to help independent analysts look across datasets for possible inefficiency, fraud or corruption. Or instead of the location of schools or health centres being kept on internal systems, the data can be published to allow innovators to present it to citizens in new and more accessible ways. And in crisis situations, instead of co-ordinators spending days collecting data from agencies in the field and re-keying the data into central databases, if all the organisations involved were to publish open data in common formats, there is the possibility of it being aggregated together, building up a clearer picture of what is going on. One of the highest profile existing open data initiatives in the development field is the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) which now has standardised open data from 100s or donors, providing the foundation for a timely view of who is doing what in aid.
Open data ideas have been spreading rapidly across the world, with many states establishing national Open Government Data (OGD) initiatives, and International Organisations from The World Bank, to UN DESA, the OECD and the Open Government Partnership all developing conversations and projects around open data. When the G8 meet next week in Northern-Ireland they are expected to launch an ‘Open Data Charter’ setting out principles for high quality open data, and committing states to publish certain datasets. Right now it remains to be seen whether open data will feature anywhere else in the in the G8 action plans, although there is clearly space for open data ideas and practices to be deployed in securing greater tax transparency, or supporting the ongoing monitoring of other commitments. In the case of the post-2105 process, a number of organisations have been advocating for an access to information focus, seeking to ensure citizens have access to open data that they can use to monitor government actions and hold governments to account on delivering on commitments.
However – as Robinson and Yu have highlighted – there can be an ambiguity of open government data: more open data does not necessarily mean more open organisations. The call for ‘raw data now’ has led to much open data emerging simply as an outbound communication, without routes for engagement or feedback, and no change in existing organisational practices. Rather than being treated as a reform that can enable greater organisational collaboration and co-ordination, many open datasets have just been ‘dumped’ on the web. In the same way that remote participation is often a bolt-on to meetings, without the deeper changes in process needed to make for equal participation for remote delegates, at best much open data only offers actors outside of institutions a partial window onto their operations, and at worst, the data itself remains opaque: stripped of context and meaning. Getting open data right for both transparency, and for transforming international collaboration needs more than just technology.
As I explored with Jovan Kurbalija of Diplo in a recent webinar, there are big challenges ahead if open data is to work as an asset for development: from balancing tensions between standardisation and local flexibility, developing true multi-stakeholder governance of important data flows, and getting the incentives for collaboration right. However, now is the time to be engaging with these challenges – within a window of energy and optimism, and before network effects lock in paradoxically ‘closed’ systems of open data. I hope the dialogue at the Geneva E-Participation day will offer a small chance to broaden open data understanding and conversations in a way that can contribute to such engagement.