As our lives become increasingly digitized, governments must respond to calls to make information available for public consumption on the Internet. Proponents of open data advocate for the release of information collected by governments in formats accessible to all citizens. But what is open data, and how can it help people make sense of their world?
Governments routinely collect facts affecting constituents and regarding a variety of topics including health, the environment, and the economy. According to Open Knowledge International, a global non-profit committed to empowering civil society to harness the power of open data for social impact, data is considered “open” when it is accessible, reusable, and available to all. It is not enough for governments to partially release data or limit its distribution. Instead, for a government to be truly open, datasets must be published in full, in machine-readable formats, and on a central, accessible online platform. Governments should also publicize the release of data, rather than publish information silently. Data.gov, a website administered by the U.S. government, is an example of a government making data publically available online. The website’s information is organized into 14 categories including climate, health, education and public safety.
Why is open data essential to democracy? When citizens are armed with knowledge, they participate more meaningfully in their government. Access to raw data allows individuals to draw their own conclusions instead of relying on government interpretation. As information becomes democratized, citizens can rise to the challenge of analyzing their own world. Additionally, when data is readily available, journalists are better able to act as “decoders” for their audience, explaining sometimes complex government information to the public to promote transparency and accountability. In both cases, open data equips voters with tools to advocate for their interests. For instance, when legislators’ votes are available online, constituents can monitor whether their representatives fulfill campaign promises, informing voters’ decisions in future elections. Similarly, when government contracts are made available to the public, corruption becomes difficult to hide, empowering constituents to demand accountability.
Open data also has the potential to generate economic growth, market freedom, and government savings. Open data could add up to $3 trillion worth of economic activity a year globally, according to McKinsey consultants. GPS data alone contributes $96 billion to the U.S. economy through the sale of devices and programs that use information collected by GPS satellites, and innovative applications created by citizens using open data are likely to generate further economic activity. Open data can also drive market competition. Releasing businesses’ information allows firms to assess competitiveness and enables consumers to choose superior products and services. Governments can also alleviate the strain on their resources by encouraging citizens to use open data to create their own applications to meet societal needs. A wildly popular example of this is Wikipedia, the user-driven online encyclopedia.
Open data activism is not without drawbacks. The technical skills needed to be an active member of the data community can create barriers to participation. Activists must also grapple with open data’s ethical limits, deciding where to draw the line on classified information and personal data. The release of data related to national security and the health of private citizens remains a contested issue in open source culture. Ongoing controversy surrounding WikiLeaks has propelled the debate between advocates of open data and those concerned about its drawbacks into public discourse.
Nonetheless, activists argue that society has more to gain from open data than it does to lose. Freedom of information enables constituents to make informed decisions regarding their government, creates new economic opportunities, and allows us to better understand our world. As such, open data is the next frontier in citizens’ quest for transparency.
In an effort to expand access to information globally, CIPE is pursuing new opportunities to advocate for open data. In countries throughout the world, CIPE is identifying local partners to work with on building online platforms that present governments’ economic data in formats that are accessible and understandable to private-sector stakeholders and civic activists. Moreover, CIPE staff are searching for opportunities to promote data journalism as an innovative means to hold governments around the globe accountable to their electorates. CIPE hopes to raise awareness of the positive impact open data has on liberal democracies. These emerging projects represent a continuation of CIPE’s history of raising the voices of activists who call for market-oriented reforms and greater transparency and accountability from their governments.
Erinn Benedict is a Program Assistant for the Middle East and North Africa at CIPE.