What to do: Political support for 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!)

All the examples and the analysis presented so far confirm that, even if there are some serious issues whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated, opening all PSI that can be opened and use it as much as possible starting at the local level makes a lot of sense. How should this happen in practice? How can this process be sustained and stimulated? Several actions can be taken at the political, legal, technical and practical level. We will describe them, in this order, in the next sections, and immediately after we’ll shortly discuss what is the role of the Public Sector in future scenarios where, just thanks to Open PSI, much of the work done today inside public organizations is done by (groups of) volunteer citizens or by private companies.

Political support for Open Data

In the next years, some smart politicians will surely realize by themselves that opening data is a fresh and powerful promotional tool to gain votes and support. Regardless of this, and in spite of our emphasis on the local usage and support of PSI, one thing is clear. Much of the activity now taking place in the UK is a direct or indirect consequence of the 2004 Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] and other steps made years ago. In order to get in other countries the same benefits of the most successful initiatives of this kind in the UK and USA, said Becky Hogge in May 2010 in an Open Data Study for the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, “It has to start at the top, it has to start in the middle and it has to start at the bottom”. We can only add to that the sooner the better, even if local administrations shouldn’t certainly wait to open their data whenever they can, as soon as possible.

The support for Open Data that should come from the top, that is from central institutions, consists mainly of three things. The first is to clearly define by law what is public PSI and what isn’t. It is not acceptable to have as a general, official or unofficial policy, to leave to the individual public departments creating some PSI to decide by themselves what data to open and what not. All data that, under existing laws, should already be given to citizens whenever they explicitly request them are good candidates for opening, but there are many others, especially because the definition of “data” isn’t always so rigid and simple in the first place.

For example in Arizona, in 2009, it took an appeal to the Supreme Court of the State to rule that even “the metadata attached to public records is itself public, and cannot be withheld in response to a public records request. Such a ruling on file metadata may not seem like a huge win for open government advocates, but it definitely is, given that metadata has unmasked more than one lobbyist’s effort to influence Congress.". The ruling happened because a police officer demoted three years earlier had requested access to some computers and files to verify the creation time (that is, file metadata) of some negative performance reports that he suspected had been written as retaliation after he had denounced serious misconduct of some colleagues.

Another issue that should receive more attention is the very definition of “public”, since it can create conflicts between the need for transparency, the one for privacy, the ways such needs are defined and protected by existing laws and the ways in which some Public Administrations more or less freely distinguish between the two. This issue is explained by, among others, a blog post by Diego Ghisilieri, summarized here:

_From a juridical point of view, the fact that a certain data is "public", meaning that is must be accessible to anybody who asks for it, doesn't mean that the same data can or should be distributed around without limits: there must be a balance between the need of citizens to know and the right to privacy (including the so-called "right to oblivion") of the specific people mentioned by, or directly identifiable by those data. In fact, if all such data were accessible online by anybody, including search engine indexers, without any restrictions, it would become possible to profile those people by mixing those and many other data (possibly outdated or relating to completely different contexts) for purposes that have no relationship whatsoever with the need for transparency in Public Administration._