The role of the Public Sector in an age of Open Government: quality and reliability of openly generated PSI

(this page is part of my Open Data, Open Society report. Please follow that link to reach the introduction and Table of Content, but don’t forget to check the notes to readers!)

There is a key issue that, so far, has been deliberately ignored in this report to deal with Open Data in an ordered manner, but will become more and more important in the medium and long term. In order to fulfill all their promises, raw PSI must not only be open and linked as previously defined, but must also be reliable and valid in court.

This may be a problem wherever, as a consequence of opening PSI, citizen will be involved not just in the analysis and usage of public data, but also in their generation. Such a process is already at the base of Open311 systems. Other cases of citizens already generating PSI are described in the article “Municipalities open their GIS systems to citizens”.

Citizen-generated digital maps have been already used for “official” purposes in places where there is not enough public money or market to create official, high-quality digital maps, for example in Gaza to help ambulance drivers and other humanitarian relief personnel, or in Albania, to support the population of Shkoder after a flood in January 2010.

Other slums and lower income communities worldwide are mapped only in this way, like the San Javier La Loma neighborhood in Medellìn, Colombia. In cases like Gaza or any other disaster site, open maps and other datasets quickly generated by volunteers are and will remain invaluable, as the only way to offer some services as quickly as possible. Such initiatives are wonderful and the only practicable solutions in scenarios like those above, but could they ever become the default way of working?

In other words, what are the value, or the limits, of community-generated maps or other data sets, and what’s left to do in an Open Data world for the public bodies that once were the only creators of PSI and would normally keep it locked? Sticking to maps, let’s consider with two extremely simplified but not-so hypothetical cases whether collaborative PSI-related efforts like OpenStreetMap may have any value in court:

Case #1: “Your Honor, I didn’t pay the new property tax for my house because it only applies to properties bigger than 10000 square meters, and everybody can see on this digital map that everybody can edit that my property is just 9899 square meters”

Case #2: “I am suing the City because I fell in a pothole which, as it is evident from this digital map that everybody can edit, lies two meters outside my back yard, that is in a location that the City, not me, must maintain safe”

These two examples show the limits of user-generated PSI-data. In cases like these a Wikipedia model, in which vandalism or good faith errors in the data are sooner or later fixed by other volunteers patroling the data, cannot work. The more PSI will be opened and heavily used, the more it will come natural to generate it collaboratively, and therefore it will become more and more necessary for all citizens to have real guarantees of PSI reliability and to know which public officer is responsible for it.

Today the problem of how much we can or should trust open PSI is still more theoretical than practical, simply because most data aren’t accessible yet and there are very little possibilities for random third parties to alter them to their advantage. Eventually, however, PSI datasets must be reliable and continuously validated by somebody, in a way that holds in court, even if they were generated in an open manner. On one hand, this means that all procedures of online publication of open PSI will have to include as soon as possible both some digital signature mechanism and the name and contact info of the public officer responsible for the authenticity of those data. On the other hand, what we just said means that the role of Public Administrations and public officers directly responding to all the citizens they serve will remain essential and not replaceable: instead of being creators, exclusive users and guardians of secret data, they will have to become guardians of the openness, usability, authenticity and quality of the same data.

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