We should demand more from “open” than just data: Thoughts on the International Open Data Conference

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Sunlight’s Lindsay Ferris speaks at the 2015 International Open Data Conference in Ottawa. (Photo credit: John Wonderlich/Twitter)

Last week, the Canadian government, International Development Research Centre, World Bank and the Open Data for Development Network hosted almost 2,000 people for the 3rd International Open Data Conference (IODC) in Ottawa. The event was one of the largest gatherings for the open government community this year, and it has invited us to confront tougher questions about how the open government community can create meaningful change.

We are often asked to identify what the impact of government data is on improving the lives of ordinary citizens — and this question certainly came up a thousand times during IODC as well. On Friday morning, for instance, during the main plenary, everyone seemed to be in agreement that the purpose of releasing government data is to ultimately benefit the user — usually the citizen. But surrounded by a room filled with software developers, researchers and civil servants, an audience member poignantly stood up and asked: “So, why are there no users on this panel?” This situation seems to encapsulate one of the serious challenges we face within the open data community right now, especially when talking about development. Although knowledge sharing can be valuable to avoid reinventing the wheel (for lack of a better cliché), we need to talk to stakeholders beyond the usual suspects to ensure a diversity of ideas within the community. Consulting with only those who have encountered the same challenges as us, either in implementing an open data project or otherwise, ignores the most important aspect of these projects: the varied user base we are trying to reach.

Worse, sometimes these divisions don’t only exist between those who create the tools and the audience they’re trying to target, but also within the community itself. As an organization working between accountability and open data, we often realize how lonely it can be in the middle of the two disparate groups. Civic hackers and policy advocates sometimes aren’t in the same conversations and there seem to be very few initiatives that attempt to marry the interests of policy and tech. However, increasing the diversity of viewpoints and interests is crucial in tackling one of our greatest challenges: How do we demand more from open data?

Openness of government is a value that NGOs, civic hackers, journalists and policymakers within this field want to work toward. The increased growth of the international open data conference from a hundred people gathering at the World Bank in D.C. three years ago to a week-long conference with almost 2,000 people is evidence of this. However, we still haven’t gotten to the core of how we can use data to shake unjust power structures and make governments more effective and accountable. Skeptics have coined the term “open-washing” as attempts for governments to be perceived as open, while keeping all important decisions and actions closed. And, alongside many others, we commonly complain that “openness” always seems to end at high-value datasets by which governments may feel threatened. And given our field’s focus on delivering services rather than engaging the user or tackling these larger problems, these criticisms have some merit.

To some extent, the focus of this community on the supply side of open government data and service delivery makes perfect sense. It’s much easier to show the impact of a tool in terms of how many people used it than to show how open data has made citizens’ lives better and transformed government in the long term — and demonstrating value is something that both civil society organizations and governments are under constant pressure to do. Unfortunately, though, the impact of this work will not suddenly become visible overnight, especially given the problems we are trying to solve. At the core of it, we’re trying to use data to solve an age-old problem: How can government serve its citizen better? If this question could be solved with a solution as simple as releasing more government information, it would have been done years ago.

Here at Sunlight, we are truly invested in advancing these larger issues. Although we are very much aware that none of us have all the answers, and believe that our strategy should continue to shift with whatever inevitable challenges may lie ahead, we are working to address some of these intermediary challenges in a few different ways:

  • Defining the impact of open data. Open government projects tend to operate in an environment where the contribution of other stakeholders and initiatives is essential to achieving sustainable change, making it even more difficult to show the causality between a project’s activities and the impact we strive to achieve. A month ago, Sunlight published a research study using a methodological framework (the outcome mapping approach) to unpack theories of change and to assess the outcomes of open data and digital transparency initiatives within complex ecosystems. We presented the findings of our research at the IODC Research Symposium and several other panels last week, and would love to hear more from the community to find the missing link between our work and long-term social change.
  • Fostering diverse networks. Sunlight is the co-founder of OpeningParliament and Money, Politics and Transparency (MPT), two networks designed to bring consensus-driven policy advocates and civic technologists to the same table to make parliaments and political financing more open, accountable and participatory. At IODC, we brought these two initiatives together during a pre-conference event to discuss ethics and standards for parliamentarians. During this workshop, we received some valuable feedback on the Declaration on the Openness of Political Finance, a community document that we hope will bridge the gap between these two groups to increase political finance transparency and demand a more open political system. The MPT partners also held a joint-panel to discuss new research on global political finance practices conducted by Global Integrity and the cultivation of a network dedicated to reforming political finance. We would welcome your feedback in the building of these international norms. Please contact us at international@sunlightfoundation.com for more information on the document or the MPT project.