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Defending the Big Tent: Open Data, Inclusivity and Activism


photo of a big tent by flickr user timparkinson

Other than his inconveniently similar name, I usually have no beef with Tom Slee. His blog provides a reliably interesting perspective on how information technology is and isn’t changing democracy. But I think that yesterday’s post (the provocatively-titled “Why the ‘Open Data Movement’ is a Joke”) suffers from a lack of perspective. And, since other smart people appear ready to accept its premises and conclusions, it seems worthwhile to respond to it in detail.

What Do We Stand For?

Tom’s critique begins by noting the Canadian government’s failure to stand behind the work of its scientists, and its decision to eliminate a valuable type of census data. The open data movement, Slee says, has not done much to oppose these developments.

I’ll admit that Sunlight’s attention does not often stray as far north as Ottawa, and protecting science from politics has never been a core part of our mission (though we often find ourselves at the table with people who work on the issue). But here in the U.S. the open data movement absolutely has engaged in activism to protect valuable and threatened information. Our Save The Data Campaign is a good example of this, as is the push (led primarily by the library sciences community) to save the Statistical Abstract.

Open Data and the Private Sector

But the core of Tom’s complaint isn’t about episodic failures of activism. Rather, he seems to be bothered by open data enthusiasts’ adoption of language and an aesthetic that traditionally belong to projects with more expressly political (and progressive) aims. He seems suspicious that a self-described nonpartisan activist movement could be anything but a cynical lobbying ploy for private interests. Indeed, there’s a clear strain of hostility toward business that runs through Tom’s critique. Fair enough: more than a few such “movements” have turned out to be astroturfing operations, and it’s certainly true that on some open data issues I expect a less than enthusiastic response from the corporate world.

But I think it’s flatly wrong to consider private actors’ interest in public data to be uniformly problematic. We should be clear: we won’t tolerate those interests’ occasional attempts to lock public data into exclusive monopolies. I think our community has done a pretty good job lately of identifying such situations and stopping them, and of course people like Carl Malamud have been doing important work on this question since well before most of us ever heard of "open data." But if commercial activity is enabled by data, that’s all to the good—the great thing about digital information is that scarcity doesn’t have to be a concern. Google Maps’ uses of Census TIGER data, for instance, is proprietary, motivated by profit, and unquestionably a huge boon to human welfare. And the source data remains free for anyone else to use! Cutting off those kinds of uses with noncommercial licensing would be nothing more than a destructive act of pique.

The Big Tent

It is true that some people are primarily interested in open data for its commercial potential. I’m not one of them, particularly. But I’m very glad to have them on my side as I seek data that can enable oversight and accountability. This tension is thoughtfully discussed in Harlan Yu and David Robinson’s recent paper, and was one of the subjects covered in a thought-provoking session moderated by Yu, Josh Tauberer and Justin Grimes at last weekend’s Transparency Camp.

The paper discusses different dimensions of the open government movement, which I would characterize as “” and “open-as-in-FOIA”. It’s certainly possible to separate these strains of thought, but, as I argued in Saturday’s conversation, doing so is likely to be politically counterproductive. Consider the case of the free software movement. Can there be any question that Richard Stallman’s radical political project has benefited from consumers’ pragmatically-minded enthusiasm for downloading Firefox? Stallman would be the first to explain the difference between his efforts and the less ideologically strident open source movement, but it seems obvious to me that our software is freer today than it would be in the absence of that useful ambiguity.

Open data’s big-tent strategy naturally means gravitating toward noncontroversial points of agreement (everyone’s in favor of weather data!). This can admittedly make the public face of the movement seem a bit too eager-to-please—perhaps even to the point of toothlessness. For Sunlight, this is a constant question: if the government releases a new site that simply reshuffles some existing datasets into a new presentation, should we raise hell? Or should we applaud their embrace of openness in the hopes that it will help to define future attitudes and expectations? That’s a political question, and one that we answer in different ways at different times.

Open Data and Activism

But in a larger sense, there can be no question that open data is an important tool for creating accountability. Consider what FOIA means for corruption. Consider what OpenCorporates is doing. Consider our work on lobbying reform or tax expenditure transparency or the understanding of the interplay between the two that open data makes possible. Or look at Revenue Watch’s work to get better data on international royalty payments from mineral and petroleum companies. Or our push for better information about Congressional activity and political advertising.

All of these efforts are made stronger and more visible through their association with the larger world of open data advocacy. And it’s not just about data for data’s sake. In the past, Sunlight accepted Occupy DC’s invitation to teach them about our money-in-politics tools, and I’ve spent hours on the phone with and answering emails from Tea Party activists who want to analyze Recovery Act spending data.

Personally, I think Tom’s right that our movement could use a dose of radicalism—I tweeted as much last Sunday (albeit as a rhetorical question—there’s that inclusivity-seeking lack of confrontation again). But that need won’t be addressed by sitting on the outside of our movement and insisting that it’s all silly nonsense. In a follow-up post, Tom says, “some tents can be so big that they collapse in a shapeless pile of canvas.” To those who feel this is true of our movement: we welcome your help in strengthening its form.

Photo by timparkinson