Social and political landscape
(this page is part of my 2011 report on “Open Data: Emerging trends, issues and best practices”. Please follow that link to reach the Introduction and Table of Content, but don’t forget to also check the notes for readers! of the initial report of the same project, “Open Data, Open Society”)
It is worthwile to begin by mentioning several events, happened between the end of 2010 and the first months of 2011, that can help to understand what will be the place and role of Open Data in the future, as well as the challenges faced by its advocates.
The first two are the Spanish “Indignados” and the Arab Spring. The first movement has among its goals “a change in society and an increase in social awareness”. The Arab Spring, as L. Millar put it on the New Zealand Computer Society website, ” demonstrated the potency of technology to reflect citizens’ views of government systems that are not transparent.”
As a consequence, noted the Afrinnovator blog, “we have seen from the civil disobedience in the North of Africa and the Middle East, the appetite for more accountable and transparent government will only grow from here on”. From these analyses it looks like, in a way, both the Indignados and the participants to the Arab Spring are (also) asking for Open Data, even if they aren’t using the term and many participants to these grassroots movement may still ignore its definition, that was born inside hackers and Public Administration circles.
Two other important events that, in different ways and at different levels, prove the importance of Open Data are the Fukushima nuclear accident and the Cablegate, which we’ll analyze in the next paragraph. Whatever one may think about nuclear power, Fukushima remembered how important total transparency and accountability are in the management and maintenance of all power sources, and in the decision-making processes that create the corresponding public policies.
For the meantime, we’ll note how all these events seem to hint that structural need and bottom-up demand for Open Data are mounting everywhere, even in cultural contexts very differen than those in which Open Data was born, and even if sometimes they are not mentioned explicitly or consciously. Even in Western Countries, the high-level motivations, for the transparency and governance models that inspire Open Data, frompositions different than those from which the movement started, are increasing. In 1931 Pope Pio XI wrote, in the Encyclic Quadragesimo anno that:
_80. The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of "subsidiary function," the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State._
This is the principle of subsidiarity, often summarized in a way that may sound familiar to many Open Data advocates: “What men can do by themselves with their own resources can’t be taken away from them and assigned as a task to society”. In March 2011, journalist Guido Gentili made just this connection. After noting that the principle was also introduced in the Italian Constitution by the 2001 reform of article 118, he concluded that subsidiarity as a strategy for development isn’t an English invention and the “Big Society” vision (a proposl in which Open data is key) would do good to Italy too”.
At a more practical and economical level, digital information continues to increase. In spite of mounting cost pressures, large public and private organizations have to maintain massive amounts of structured and unstructured data, that keep growing, both for their own internal needs and to simply comply with government regulations. At the same time, signals that traditional public services and the whole welfare state won’t remain sustainable for long with traditional means, continue to arrive, therefore strengthening the search for radical, innovative and cost-effective solutions.
Besides costs, another practical driver and justification for Open Data that is becoming more and more concrete over time is damage control. In a world that produces digital data without interruption, uncontrolled and unpredictable data releases are facts of life that are very hard to predict, practically impossible to avoid and increasingly common. Opening public government data, that is providing plenty of officially verified information, becomes therefore also a damage control solution, to prevent or at least minimize damages from such uncontrolled releases. Without official Open Public Data, individual citizens, political parties or other organizations will start to process and compare (if they already aren’t…) data from unofficial sources anyway, maybe from different countries. In such cases, it will be unavoidable not reach sometimes, even in good faith, wrong conclusions. This is not some theoretical possibility far in the future, as this real world example (from a comment to an Open Data discussion in an italian blog) proves:
"_on the `[non italian]` Geonames website you can download geo-referenced data about... 47000 Italian municipalities. That worries me, because there are only 8094 of them. Besides, I grabbed a few random data about population, and I can guarantee you that not one was right. What should be done in such cases?_
From an Open Data perspective, all these recent stories have (at least) one thing in common: they suggest that, considering its current needs and problems, current societies want and need more Open Data than they already have.