Rhodes must fall

17 years ago I was an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford. I lived for my first year in the ‘Rhodes building’ – not many metres from the statue of Cecil Rhodes that adorns the front of the building.

The only narrative of Rhodes I recall from that time, was one of the college’s proud connection to its alumni and benefactor. To my shame, whilst with student campaigners I was active against contemporary donations to the University that appeared to buy naming rights and launder the reputations of questionable modern day donors – I left unexplored how the ongoing honouring of past donors had allowed them to ‘buy’ a ‘controversial reputation instead of the condemnation their actions deserve. Nor did I consider then how the memorialisation of Rhodes plays a part (even if small compared to other factors) in perpetuating the continued exclusion of marginalised communities from Oxford, and in reinforcing barriers to people from (Oxford) minorities taking greater ownership over the institutions of the University. 

The college has a (belated) opportunity to make the right statement with the removal of the Rhodes statue. Leave it there, and Rhodes remains a ‘controversial figure’ and the college an institution concerned only with reproducing “an educated ruling class” (to quote from the college’s essay on Rhodes). Move it to a museum where it belongs, and the conversation with every undergraduate can be about our importance of questioning and learning from history – using education as a means of creating a more just future. The teachable moment will be all the stronger when the statue’s niche stands empty. 

Rhodes must fall.

Open Contracting & Inclusion – notes from an online discussion

[Summary: Exploring inclusion impacts of data and standards in response to a paper on Open Contracting & inclusion]

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining a call hosted by HIVOS, and chaired by ILDA’s Ana Sofia Ruiz, to discuss a recent paper from Michael Canares and François van Schalkwyk on “Open Contracting and Inclusion”. The paper is well worth a read, and includes a review of five cases against a theoretical framework looking across data flows, opportunities for action, infomediary presence, and through to inclusion outcomes (see table below for example of how these play out in a few of the cases reviewed)

Table 2: Summary of conditions met by the cases with regard to open contracting and social inclusion

After the discussion, we were asked to summarise some of our inputs – hopefully feeding into a wide write-up. However, in case what I’ve written up doesn’t really fit the format of that, I’m posting a cleaned up and slightly expanded version of the remarks I made below:

This paper, and the discussion around it, raises a number of valuable questions – drawing on a rich theoretical landscape to post them. 

Firstly, it asks us “How are data flows being disrupted?”. This question is important, because in many ‘open contracting’ projects it is rarely explicitly asked. We’re living in a time of mass disruption, yet open contracting is often ‘sold’ as a kind of reform. One of the widely used success stories for work on open contracting data comes from Ukraine, where there was a true disruption in data flows – using the moment of revolution to reconfigure patterns of procurement, and to create data infrastructures that enabled those new more open practices. 

Secondly, this paper calls on us to question “what is the value of data in bringing about inclusion?” In the past we’ve talked about whether open data is either necessary or sufficient to create change. The answer I take from this paper is that increased accessibility of information and data is ‘a very useful, but nowhere near sufficient’ condition for inclusive change. 

Thirdly, the use of Castell’s framework from Communication Power of ‘network power’ (shaping the information that can be transmitted), ‘networking power’ (gatekeeping which information is transmitted), and ‘networked power’ (control by one node in the network of others), and ideas of ‘programming the network’ and ‘reprogramming the network’, raise some critical questions about the role of data standards. Often treated as neutral artefacts, standards are in fact sites of power, and of the negotiation of network and networking power. A standard defines what can be expressed, and its implementation involves choosing what will be expressed. Standards can be at once tools that cross contexts, taking with them the potential of inclusion and exclusion (network power), and at the same time, have that potential left inert if the localised networking power decides not to take up inclusion oriented features. 

To put this more concretely (if still a little complex I fear), the Open Contracting Data Standard was explicitly designed with a technical architecture that permits data about any given contracting process to be published by any actor, not only the ‘official’ information provider, and with a mechanism for extensions, supporting new fields of data to be attached to a contracting process. The ‘protocol’ sought to be inclusive. However, in practice, most tools have not been built to exploit this feature – meaning that in practice, the ‘platforms’ that exist don’t support inclusion of alternative perspectives on the state of a contracting process. This highlights that even at the level of the technical infrastructures, these are not made once, but have to be constantly remade, and their inclusive potential reinforced.

Fourth, the paper calls for a renewed focus on both governance context, and on intermediaries. Whilst technical artefacts can cross contexts, intermediary capacity building needs significant investment setting-by-setting. Equally, the discussion brought into view that this cannot be a short-term process. Intermediaries need not only skills, but also stocks of trust, in order to broker connections and communication. One of the evaluation team who had worked on a case covered by the paper discussed how it was individuals’ ability to maintain trusted relationships across different stakeholder groups that was critical to connecting information and empowerment. The importance of this cannot be overstated. 

Fifth, and finally, in his opening statement, Michael Canares challenged us to consider whether Open Contracting is different from other public sector reforms? After all – there have been decades of procurement reform. To this, I’m prepared to advance an answer: There is a meaningful qualitative difference with government reforms that start from the premise of openness. When a commitment to being open by default is put into practice, the configuration of actors involved in creating change is different, and conventional patterns of bureaucratic reform can be disrupted. Whether they are disrupted or not depends still on individual internal and external actors, and on whether the culture, as well as the practice, of openness has been brought into play. Nevertheless, Open Contracting has certain potential that is simply absent from past procurement reforms – and that is something to continue to build on.

The challenge ahead now is to work out what to do with these questions. We’re starting to unpack the complexity of open contracting practice – and the nuances for each individual setting. But, if all we have are critical questions, we risk inaction rather than advances in inclusion. During the early development of the Open Contracting Data Standard we often turned to the mantra that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This carries forward: as we avoid the perfect being the enemy of making things better. I’d contend that we need to continue turning our learning into tooling – whether technical tools, evaluation frameworks, to simple planning tools for new initiatives. Only then can we be part of taking on the large scale reforms that this time of disruption needs. 

2019 in Review

I started writing this just before the Christmas break, but got interrupted by both festivities and flu. So, below, a slightly belated look back at 2019: where yet again my blogging has been far too sporadic.

January – FOI & Javelin Park Protests

Last Christmas eve, I was pouring over the newly released details of a £100m+ cost increase in the contract for the Javelin Park incinerator I’ve written about before. Over Christmas, we put together calls for an Independent Inquiry into the project, and come January, I was outside the plant, taking part in protests at the price rise.

Since then, the County Council have been taken to court over the contract, putting the calls for an inquiry on hold (although questions were finally put to the Chief Executive of the Council in March, with updates on the court case expected in early 2020.

My other FOI adventures of 2019 have been less conclusive:

  • Gloucestershire’s refusal to provide prices and buyers of the public land they have sold off means the only way to piece this together would be by spending £100s on land registry records: something I’ve not had space to pursue. Promises that this information would be published proactively from September have been broken by Cabinet – and our experiment in using the Local Audit and Accountability Act in June to look at relevant documents didn’t appear to provide a full overview. It seems profoundly odd that there is so little transparency over how public assets are being disposed of.

February – Exploring Arts and Data

At the start of the year, I kicked off a part-time role as ‘Data Catalyst’ with Create Gloucestershire working on a number of fronts to support their internal data practices, but also to scope out ways to connect artists with debates around data. I shared some initial research back in February and in September had great fun co-facilitating a ‘Creative Lab’ at Atelier in Stroud, where we co-created a range of data-informed art works – from VR Design Teachers, to fabric chromatography creations that visualised data on school subject choice.

March – TicTec & The State of Open Data

Much of March was spent working on final editing of chapters for The State of Open Data, and then, late in the month, heading to Paris for The Impacts of Civic Technology (TicTec) conference to present initial finings with my co-editor, Mor. An evening reception and hearing about digital democracy and participation projects at French National Assembly was particularly inspiring.

April – Printing and Driving

2019 was supposed to be a bit of a sabbatical year (learning point: I’m not very good at sabbaticals), but in late March and April I did finally get round to my two main goals of: (a) learning a bit about printmaking; (b) passing my driving test.

A wonderful two day workshop with Rod Nelson had me exploring woodcut designs exploring field patterns and the Stroud landscape.

And Bob Waters got me through my test first time.

I’ve promptly failed to do any more printing or driving this year, but at least I now know a bit more about how to!

First ‘field patterns’ print drying on Rod Nelson’s studio

May – State of Open Data Book Tour and OGP

May took me to the US, for a few weeks of #slowTravel by train around the East Coast, and then up to Canada, for the full launch of the the State of Open Data book. It was a real pleasure to catch up with old friends, and to take part in some really stimulating workshops, including a fascinating Belfer Center session on ‘Data as Development’ which gave rise to this note on the idea of a ‘a data extraction transparency initiative.

Getting hold of physical copies of The State of Open Data book was a great moment: as at times the project has felt quite beyond delivery. I’m pretty pleased indeed with how it turned out – with contributions from 60+ authors, and many more reviewers and contributors.

I’ve still got a few hard copies that can go free to University or organisational libraries, so if you’ve read this far, and you would like one – do drop me a note.

At IDRC for book talk on State of Open Data
With the editors of State of Open Data sharing findings from the book at IDRC HQ.

June – Facilitation fun with IATI

In June I took another #slowTravel trip – heading to Copenhagen by train to facilitate a workshop for the International Aid Transparency Initiative’s technical community on the draft strategy.

This followed some online facilitation work for strategy dialogues earlier in the year. I’ve also had chance this year to co-facilitate an online dialogue for Land Portal: reminding me how much I enjoy this kind of blended online and offline facilitation work. Perhaps something to explore more in 2020.

July – Coast to Coast

In July, Rachel and I set out walking across the UK on Wainright’s Coast to Coast path – raising funds for  Footsteps Counselling and Care .

The weather and walk was stunning – and a real chance for reflection. Photos from the coast to coast walk

 

August – Impact Bonds and Waste Management

Besides the annual August pilgrimage to Greenbelt, it was a month of interesting UK projects – including work with the Government Outcomes Lab at the University of Oxford to scope out ways to improve transparency and data sharing around Social Impact Bonds, and contributing to a  (sadly unsuccessful) pitch by Open Data Manchester and Dsposal to secure innovation funding to build on their prototype KnoWaste standard.

September – Civic Media Observatory

In September, I had my first opportunity to work in-depth on a project with the fantastic Global Voices team – using AirTable to rapid prototype a database and workflow for tracking and analysing mainstream media, social media, and offline events through a local lens, and understanding the context and subtext of the media that platform moderators may be asked to make snap judgements over.

A three-day workshop in Skopje, Northern Macedonia, looking at coverage of the EU Accession talks, put the prototype to the test (and introduced me to some quite remarkable monumental architecture….). 

October – AI at Bellagio

I spent all of October in Italy, first as a residential fellow at the Rockefeller Bellagio Center in Italy, and then with a brief vacation in Verona, and quick trip to Rome to work with Land Portal.

Taking part in the Bellagio Center’s thematic month on Artificial Intelligence was quite simply a once in a lifetime opportunity. I didn’t write much about it at the time (as I was busy trying to pull together the outline of a new book proposal) and with an election called in the UK just as we were heading home, haven’t had the space to follow up. Hopefully some point next year I’ll be publishing a few outputs from the month.

However, I can’t leave my fellow resident’s work un-shared, so if I’ve not already signposted the below to you, do take time to:

I should also mention one of the other highlights of the residency: enjoying two shows, numerous tricks. and sage advice from ‘Magician in residence’ Brad Barton, Reality Thief – go see him if you are ever in the Bay Area!

November – Elections!

I returned from Italy right into the middle of the biggest General Election campaign Stroud District Green Party have ever run, for the fantastic Molly Scott Cato. It was a month both spent both on the doorstep, and juggling spreadsheets – exploring the reality of values-based volunteer-driven political campaigning in an era of data.

December – Global Data Barometer

Over November and December I was also working on the scoping for a potential new project – the Global Data Barometer – a successor to the Open Data Barometer study I helped create at the Web Foundation back in 2013. The goal is to explore how a 100+ country study could provide insight into patterns of ‘responsible re-use’ of data around the world – capturing both use of data as a resource for sustainable development – and efforts to manage the risks that the unregulated collection and processing of ever increasing quantities of data might create. I published the initial draft research framework just before Christmas, and will be exploring the project more in a workshop in Washington next week.

2020 plans

Over 2020 I’m looking forward to more work on the Global Data Barometer, and with the Open Ownership team, as well as some further facilitation projects, and, hopefully, a bit more writing time! We’ll see.