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[berkman] From Freedom of Information to Open data … for open accountability

Filipe L. Heusser [pdf] is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “Open Data for Open Accountability.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

How is the open Web been changing accountability and transparency? Filipe is going to share two ideas: 1. The Web is making the Freedom of Information Act (FOIOA) obsolete. 2. An open data policy is necessary to keep freedom of information up to date, and to move toward open accountability.

Lots of people praise transparency, he says. There are multiple systems that benefit from it. Felipe shows a map of the world that shows that most parts of the world have open government policies, although that doesn’t always correlate with actual openness. We continue to push for transparency. One of the cornerstones of transparency policy is freedom of information regulation. In fact, FOIA is part of a long story, going back at least back to 1667 when a Finnish priest introduced a bill into the Swedish parliament. [Entirely possible I heard this wrong.]

Modern FOI laws require governments to react to requests and to proactively provide information. (In response to a question, Filipe says that countries have different reasons for putting FOI laws in place: as a credential, to create a centralized info system (as in China), etc.), etc. Felipe’s study of 67 laws found five clusters, although overall they’re alike. One feature they share: They heavily rely on reactive transparency. This happens in part because FOI laws come out of an era when we thought about access to documents, not about access to data. That’s one big reason FOI laws are increasingly obsolete. In 2012, most of the info is not in docs, but is in data sets.

Another reason: It’s one-way information. There’s no two-way communication, and no sharing. Also, gatekeepers decide what you can know. If you disagree, you can go to court, which is expensive and slow.

In May 2009, data.gov launched. The US was the first country to support an open data policy. Sept. 2009 the UK site launched. Now many have, e.g., Kenya and the World Bank. These data are released in machine-readable formats. The open data community thinks this data should be available raw, online, complete, timely, accessible, machine processable, reusable, non-discriminatory and with open licenses.

So, why are these open data initiatives good news? For one thing, it keeps our right to FOI up to date: we can get at the data sets of neutral facts. For another, it enables multiway communication. There are fewer gatekeepers you have to ask permission of. It encourages cheap apps. Startups and NGOs are using it to provide public service delivery.

Finally, Felipe runs an NGO that uses information to promote transparency and accountability. He says that access to open data changes the rules of accountability, and improves them. Traditional gov’t accountability moves from instituational and informal to crowd-source and informal; from a scarcity of watchdogs to an abundance of watchdogs; and from an election every four years to a continuous benchmark. We are moving from accountability to open accountability.

Global Voices started a project called technology for transparency, mapping open govt apps. Also, MySociety, Ushahidi, Sunlight Foundation, andCuidadano Inteligente (Felipe’s NGO). One of CI’s recent apps is Inspector of Interests, which tries to identify potential conflicts of interest in the Chilean Congress. It relies on open data. The officials are required to release info about themselves, which CI built an alternative data set to contrast with the official one, using open data from the Tax and Rev service and the public register. This exposed the fact that nearly half of the officials were not publishing all their assets.

It is an example of open accountability: uses open data, machine readable, neutral data, the crowd helps, and provides ongoing accountability.

Now Felipe points to evidence about what’s going on with open data initiatives. There is a weird coalition pushing for open data policies. Gov’ts have been reacting. In three years, there are 118 open data catalogs from different countries, with over 700,000 data sets. But, although there’s a lot of hype, there’s lots to be done. Most of the catalogs are not driven at a national level. Most are local. Most of the data in the data catalogs isn’t very interesting or useful. Most are images. Very little info about medical, and the lowest category is banking and finance.

Q: [doc] Are you familiar with miData in the UK that makes personal data available? Might this be a model for gov’t.

Q: [jennifer] 1. There are no neutral facts. Data sets are designed and structured. 2. There are still gatekeepers. They act proactively, not reactively. E.g., data.gov has no guidelines for what should be supplied. FOIA meets demands. Open data is supplied according to what the gatekeepers want to share. 3. FOIA can be shared. 4. What’s the incentive to get useful open data out?
Q: [yochai] Is open data doing the job we want? Traffic and weather data is great, but the data we care about — are banks violating privacy, are we being spied on? — don’t come from open data but from FOIA requests.
A: (1) Yes, but FOI laws regulate the ability to access documents which are themselves a manipulation to create a report. By “neutral facts” I meant the data, although the creation of columns and files is not neutral. Current FOI laws don’t let you access that data in most countries. (2) Yes, there will still be gatekeepers, but they have less power. For one thing, they can’t foresee what might be derived from cross-referencing data sets.
Q: [jennifer] Open data doesn’t respond to a demand. FOI does.
A: FOI remains demand driven. And it may be that open data is creating new demand.

Q: [sascha] You’re getting pushback because you’re framing open data as the new FOI. But the state is not going to push into the open data sets the stuff that matters. Maybe you want to say that WikiLeaks is the new FOI, and open data is something new.
A: Yes, I don’t think open data replaces FOI. Open data is a complement. In most countries, you can’t get at data sets by filing a FOI request.

Q: [yochai] The political and emotional energy is being poured into open data. If an administration puts millions of bits of irrelevant data onto data.gov but brings more whistleblower suits than ever before,…to hold up that administration as the model of transparency is a real problem. It’d be more useful to make the FOI process more transparent and shareable. If you think the core is to make the govt reveal things it doesn’t want to do, then those are the interesting interventions, and open data is a really interesting complement. If you think that you can’t hide once the data is out there, then open data is the big thing. We need to focus our political energy on strengthening FOI. Your presentation represents the zeitgeist around open data, and that deserves thinking.
Q: [micah] Felipe is actually quite critical of data.gov. I don’t know of anyone in the transparency movement who’s holding up the Obama gov’t as a positive model.
A: Our NGO built Access Inteligente which is like WhatDoTheyKnow. It publishes all the questions and responses to FOI requests, crowdsourcing knowledge about these requests. Data.gov was the first one and was the model for others. But you’re right that there are core issues on the table. But there might be other, smaller, non-provocative actions, like the release of inoffensive data that lets us see that members of Congress have conflicts of interest. It is a new door of opportunity to help us move forward.

A: [juan carlos] Where are corporations in this mix? Are they not subject to social scrutiny?

Q: [micah] Can average citizens work with this data? Where are the intermediaries coming from?
A: Often the data are complex. The press often act as intermediaries.

Q: Instead of asking for an overflow of undifferentiated data, could we push for FOI to allow citizens’ demands for data, e.g., for info about banks?
A: We should push for more reactive transparency

Q: [me] But this suggests a reframing: FOI should be changed to enable citizens to demand access to open data sets.

Q: We want different types of data. We want open data in part to see how the govt as a machine operates. We need both. There are different motivations.

Q: I work at the community level. We assume that the intermediaries are going to be neutral bodies. But NGOs are not neutral. Also, anyone have examples of citizens being consulted about what types of data should be released to open data portals?
A: The Kenya open data platform is there but many Kenyans don’t know what to do with it. And local governments may not release info because they don’t trust what the intermediaries will do it.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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