Wikileaks and the Open Data movement


(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”)

During the 20102011 winter the discussions around the Cablegate and other documents published by Wikileaks have, in some occasion, included hostility towards Open Data. This is a consequence of a more or less conscious mixing of the two themes, because in a very general sense, both Open Data and Wikileaks are about transparency, accountability and democracy.

As far as this study is concerned, two conclusions can be drawn from the Cablegate/Wikileaks scandal.

The first is that, in practice, it is necessary to find and equilibrium between secrecy and transparency whenever government activities are concerned. Citizens must be able to know what the state is actually doing but sometimes, be it for careful evaluation of all the alternatives or because of security, it must be possible to work behind closed doors, at least temporarily. We’ll come back to this point later in this report.

The second conclusion is that, while certainly both Open Data and Wikileaks are about openness and transparency in politics, not only there are deep differencies between the two ideas but, in our opinion, the Wikileaks experience proves the advantages of Open Data.

Was Wikileaks right to publish the cable? Were the specific facts and behaviors uncovered by Cablegate right or wrong? The answer to these questions are outside the scope of this document. Here we only wish to point out that Cablegate and Wikileaks, at least in the form we’ve known them so far, have been about:

  • reacting to problems after they occurred

  • without any intervention and involvement of the parties and organizations that may have behaved improperly

Open Data, instead, is about prevention of errors, abuses and inefficiencies, through conscious and continuous collaboration of citizens and governments officials during day to day operations, if not before their beginning.

Of course, citizens must always check that they aren’t getting incomplete or biased data. But in any case, Open Data means that the involved government officials aren’t just prepared to see that data published, they know and accept it from the start. In such a context, some risks associated to Wikileaks, like the fact that the leaker lacks the means to influence the downstream use of the information, and therefore may harm anybody connected to the linked information, are almost non-existant.

Above all, unlike the content of most Wikileaks documents, Open Data are almost always data that should surely be open, unlike wartime military reports, and that almost never contain any personal information. In summary, whatever the conclusions about Wikileaks are, they could not be conclusions against Open Data, because there are too many differences between the two movements.

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