Transparency, Accountability, and Open Data

This is part three of my series on the open data scene.

I think it’s fairly non-controversial to say that ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’ have become the watchwords of contemporary democracy. More than ever, it seems, citizens want to see what their governments are doing and understand how they make their decisions. It also seems that there is an increasing sense of direct ownership of government. Citizens are no longer content to delegate the business of governance and politics to elected representatives every few years in a general election – they want their elected representatives to act as the interface between two living, organic forces: decision makers on the one hand, and citizens on the other.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the language of transparency and accountability has made its way into the open government scene. Governments generate and use an immense quantity of information to make decisions that profoundly affect our daily lives. The fundamental principles of a just, democratic society suggest that we should at least get to peek at it. This take on open data forms a very distinct thread of conversation inside the open data movement. Basically, this interpretation is a modern reinterpretation of the age-old axiom “Knowledge is power.” I call it ‘available data’.

There is an interesting accusatory tone that pervades the available data discussion in Alberta. All too often, I hear the scenesters cast government as a secretive entity that jealously hoards information behind tall firewalls. Tales are told where government is imputed with shady motives and ascribed with the intent to subvert the desires of its citizens by withholding the very information that gives them their power.

Having worked most of my admittedly-short professional career as some kind of researcher, I find this accusatory tone and unflattering depiction of government troubling. It highlights the powerful feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization in civil society, but it also underscores the complete ignorance of the tremendous (and tragically underutilized) information resources that governments have been placing at the disposal of citizens for decades. I have worked as an archival, historical, political, and policy researcher for the Legislative Assembly Office, political authors, and non-profit organizations. This work has acquainted me with the vast, impressive network of government libraries and archives across the province. These institutions are mandated to act as the custodians of government information, and their services are available to any citizen in the province. They are the repositories and guardians of every scrap of paper, every table of data, and every government report, and they work for the public.

That being said, the management of public information is a constantly evolving process, and there is still a lot of work to be done. Chris Moore, the Chief Information Officer of the City of Edmonton, pointed out to me that the culture of information sharing and preservation that exists for physical has not yet been fully embraced for digital media. For instance, a government employee will consciously preserve and share their paper documents, but they might not think to do the same for the files on their computer. Nonetheless, these kinds evolutions do not really require big-idea conferences like ChangeCamp or the Open City Workshop. These evolutions must be led in-house by progressive CIO’s like Chris Moore, although it certainly helps him accomplish these tasks when he can point to a large gathering of open data scenesters supporting his initiatives.

There’s one last aspect of the available data conversation that I would like to address. I’m sure the scenesters reading this post have been jumping up and down and shouting that at best, I’m describing translucent government. They would probably argue that a truly transparent government should not require its citizens to dig through dusty archives and vast libraries to find the information that will allow them to hold decision makers accountable.

I take their point well, but I largely feel that their frustration is misdirected. It’s hard to blame the real world for being so darn complex, so the caricature of secretive government takes form. The truth of the matter is governments have tremendously complex operations and they must make exceedingly complicated decisions. It is inevitable, then, that the information they generate and use will mirror these overwhelming complexities. As a professional researcher, I have already vouched for the general openness of the system. Now, I will vouch for the incredible amounts of legwork that finding information can sometimes require. I will also vouch for the even-greater amount of time that must be expended making sense of the data. These are tough challenges for the common citizen and the hobbyist policy wonk to be sure, but these are the natural challenges of vast and complex data and not the inventions of nefarious governments.

At the same time, like I said above, there is progress to be made, and another genre within the open data scene is hard at work on these challenges. They are busy innovating new ways to make this information easier to find and easier to apply so that real people can use it to do new and exciting things. These open data scenesters will be the focus of my next post.

Until then!

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