The social dangers of Open Data


(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!)

As is the case with any other tool that is very powerful, Open PSI can also have negative effects, even if in the big picture, or in the medium/long term, their advantages still greatly outweigh the disadvantages. One first, potential disadvantage of opening PSI (more on this later) can be temporary disillusion and loss of interest for politics, if not disgust, in citizens. Another, more likely risk, is the fact that, at least initially, Open Data may only benefit people in the upper classes of society who have, on average, better Internet connectivity and much more familiarity with online services than the others, who could therefore may be damaged. A perfect, very recent example of this problem has been discussed in September 2010 by M. Gurstein:

“A very interesting and well-documented example of this empowering of the empowered can be found in the work of Solly Benjamin and his colleagues looking at the impact of the digitization of land records in Bangalore. Their findings were that newly available access to land ownership and title information in Bangalore was primarily being put to use by middle and upper income people and by corporations to gain ownership of land from the marginalized and the poor. The newly digitized and openly accessible data allowed the well to do to take the information provided and use that as the basis for instructions to land surveyors and lawyers and others to challenge titles, exploit gaps in title, take advantage of mistakes in documentation, identify opportunities and targets for bribery, among others”.

For all the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraphs, Open Data (but this is true for any form of Open or E-Government in general) is also going to destroy jobs. An unavoidable consequence of large-scale adoption of services and initiatives like those we just described will be to make completely redundant several white collar jobs in the public sector, that is the sector which is the largest provider in many countries of long-term jobs, that is of social stability.

Openness is not enough for real transparency

Information is power. Availability and mass usage of data can make much harder for politicians and powerful lobbies to control public opinion and abuse of their power as it happened in the past. But the same abundance can also make much easier (and cheaper) to do the same things in other, more technologically advanced ways. When hiding information in order to maintain or gain power isn’t an option anymore, it is still possible to achieve more or less the same result by providing too much of it, flooding relevant data under less important ones, or (not) linking and presenting them in the correct way.

Open Data must be packaged in ways that most people care about and can quickly understand, in order to be effective. Above all, they must be used as much as possible, as soon as they are created. There is no guarantee that data will achieve a positive effect only because some generic Freedom of Information law has been approved and, consequently, data are put in plain sight. According to a survey conducted in May 2010, nearly 80 per cent of local newspaper editors in UK believe that (in spite of the interest in UK for Open Data) public bodies such as the local council, police or health authority are becoming more secretive. 35% of editors had experienced having a reporter prevented from attending a public meeting or prevented from reporting details from it.

Similarly, there is no real guarantee of openness and transparency in the mere fact that some data are or became, somehow, available to the general public. A proof of this kind comes from Estonia: after the first general elections in the country, the winning party donated many documents to the publicly accessible National Archives, where they sat ignored for 13 years. Only in 2006 a professional, Tallinn-based journalist Tarmo Vahter, found evidence that in 1993 party leaders had directly solicited and accepted payments from soon-to-be privatized companies. When Vahter published the story, it was too late from many practical points of view but one: the political parties terminated donations of their documents to the National Archives. We can’t even be certain that those episodes would have been discovered earlier if in 1993 the Internet had already been as common as today and the data had been immediately published online. A badly indexed, non searchable website, full of PDF files with obscure names, could have hidden the facts almost as effectively as dropping paper documents in some basement of the National Archives.

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