Why open data needs to be “Citizen literate”

A “data literate” citizen isn’t someone who knows how to handle a spreadsheet — it’s someone who inherently understands the value of data in decision making.

So says Adi Eyal in a piece very much worth a read, called Why publishing more open data isn’t enough to empower citizens  over on IJnet.

I’m right behind the sentiment expressed in the headline.

I’m fascinated by the tensions caused by the use of open data – or perhaps more specifically the rhetoric of its use.  I often find myself questioning the claims of the ‘usefulness’ of open data, especially when they are linked to social and community outcomes. I share Eyal’s view that  whilst there may be some big claims, “there is not yet a larger body of work describing how open data has brought about systemic, long-term change to societies around the world.”

Some might argue (me included) that its just too early to make judgements.  As idealistic and iconoclastic as the promises may be at times, I do think it is just a matter of time before we begin to see tangible and consistently replicable  social benefit from the use of open data.

But the the key challenge is not the destination or how long it takes to get there. It’s how we do it.

In the IJNet piece Eyal makes a distinction between simply freeing the data and its effective use, especially by average citizens. He makes a strong case for the role of “infomediaries” :

These groups (data wranglers, academics, data-proficient civil society organizations, etc.) turn data into actionable information, which can then be used to lobby for tangible change.

I’m very drawn to that idea and it reflects the way the open data ecosystem is developing and needs to develop. But I do think there’s an underlying conflation in the article that hides a fundamental problem in the assumption that infomediaries are effective bridges – It assumes that open data and open government data are the same thing.

It’s an important distinction for me.  The kind of activities and infomediaries the article highlights are driven in the most part by a fundamental connection to open government (and its data).  There is a strong underpinning focus on civic innovation in this reading of the use and value of open government data. I’d argue that Open Data is driven more  by a strong underpinning of economic innovation – from which social and civic innovation might be seen as  as value created from the use of services they provide.

There is a gap between those who hold the data and use it make decisions and those that are affected by those decisions.   I don’t think that open data infomediaries always make that gap smaller,  they simply take up some of the  space.  Some do reach across the gap more effectively than others – good data journalism for example.  But others, through an economically driven service model, simply create another access point for data.

From an open data ecosystem point of view this is great, especially if you take a market view. It makes for vibrant open data economy and a sustainable sector.  From the point of view of the citizen, the end user, the gap is still there. They are either left waiting for other infomediaries to bring that data and its value closer or required to skill-up enough to set out across the gap themselves.

The space between citizens and government is often more of a market economy rather than a citizen driven supply chain.

There is a lot of the article that I agree with but I’d support the points made with a parallel view and suggest that as well as data literate citizens as Eyal describes them, open data infomediaries need to be “citizen literate”:

A citizen literate data infomediary isn’t one that just knows how to use data – its one that understands how citizens can effectively use data to be part of a decision making process.






Open data and rent-seeking economies

Yesterday, I was introduced to a concept I hadn’t heard of before – rent seeking behaviour.  Its an economics term that essentially means that instead of investing time developing things that you can sell, you spend all your money making it really hard for the other guy to sell their stuff. The best analogy I’ve seen for it so far uses pirates – don’t all the best analogies have pirates!

As someone who works in journalism it was nice to finally have a way to describe the approach of commercial news organisations to the BBC.  But I digress. I came across it in the context of open data. Chris Taggart Co-Founder & CEO at OpenCorporates used it, saying it was the kind of behaviour that making data open discouraged.

It makes sense. In an information economy we tend not to make stuff other than information and increasingly we build economies around protecting that information. It’s collected and combined (and I’m not discounting the value of that process) but it’s not ‘ours’.  As consumers we are becoming more aware through our own understanding or by others efforts to lift the stones, of the value of data. So anywhere there a low level of transparency there’s a risk of rent-seeking that directly impacts us.  You can see how open data would ‘bust’ that except that it relies on two things:

  1. it assumes that those that benefit from the rent-seeking in the first place would change their ways. Yes, the logic of diminishing profits is compelling but in a world where we trade at micro-second speed, who’s in it for the long game?
  2. it assumes that the open data ecosystem isn’t in danger of rent-seeking itself.

At the moment, much of the open data economy may not be rent-seeking but it does seem to do a lot of sub-letting *. It borrows data from others to make its own products. It often add a lot of understanding (and value) but often not very much new data.

Advocates of open data would perhaps point at the Government as the biggest rent-seeker in the data market. But open data is now as much a business as it is a movement for transparency and accountability. Instead if using lobbying and legislation of traditional rent-seeking, it’s licensing that seems to be the means of control.  So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at the amount of ‘open-washing’ I see in the open data community but it would be a shame if the lobbying took over from the core business of making more data more open.

* I know, the kind of rent in rent-seeking is not the same as housing rent but

Image from Peter on Flicker 

Refelcting on the #ODISummit

Over the last two days I’ve been in London getting my head around the Open Data community at the Open Data institute’s second Open Data Summit.(#odisummit)

I’m involved in an InnovateUK/Nesta funded project that’s looking at open data ecosystems that you need for open data to emerge and thrive, especially at a local level.

The summit was a great chance to do a bit of anthropology  – to get among the open data people and see just who they were. And, if the delegates at the Summit were anything to go by, what a diverse bunch they are!

The Monday was set as a training and discovery day. Training is one of the core parts of the ODI’s business; In just under two years they say they’ve trained nearly 700 people.  So it was interesting to see this as a more official part of the summit.  The subjects were pretty diverse from Law to how to bring up open data at parties – no really!

It was really useful for me , not just because I learnt a lot of new things e.g. open licensing is deceptively complex. It also helped me get a feel for the balancing act that seems to be a constant part of the open data community.

Open and Data

The crowd seemed to split for me between ‘open’ people and ‘data’ people. A lot of people were in the room motivated by openness. The power of transparency to do things better. That was often a strong ideological view, but there was also a clear commercial element here which I could best sum up as a passion for open innovation. The ‘data’ people in the room highlighted the technological and process bias; learning how to sift 6gb of data in 6 seconds or introducing a more structured, scientific approach to visualization.  Of course it wasn’t mutually exclusive. A lot of people worked the space in between.

The extent of that liminal space really showed itself in the second day as we decamped to the British Film institute  for the summit proper.

Reaching the data Summit

The day was bookended by a call to arms from the ODI founders. First Tim Berners Lee – cue lots of tech-crowd swooning – who thinks the argument for releasing data is at the same stage as the early web when it comes to the argument of what you put on the web.  He commented that it was “a syndrome of progressive, competitive, disclosure” that forced websites to offer their users more and open data will do the same.  

25 Years of the World Wide Web from Open Data Institute on Vimeo.

The other ‘end’ went to Nigel Shadbolt who sent the crowd away with ‘a data can save the world message’ underpinned by two common themes for data – Health (and it’s current poster germ ebola), healthcare.

Closing keynote: Sir Nigel Shadbolt from Open Data Institute on Vimeo.

The spaces in between were filled with government and private companies with good stories to tell around opening up and using data and a few tasty funding announcements (EU open data and heritage and culture). This seemed to be the general tone of the event – shiny happy data stories – as ODI CEO Gavin Starks said “the odi brings color to data”


One notable exception from the parade of open data case studies and lightening talks, was an onstage interview by Martha Lane Fox with Manchester teenager and EU Digital Girl of the year Amy Mather. It’s a testimony to the the attitudes that pervade in tech that the thing’s Amy said are seen as fresh and challenging . Amy was as much an example of the value of critical approaches to tech as tech itself and the interview is well worth a watch.

My reflections

It was a really useful two days for me a few points struck me:

Open data (and the ODI) walks a really fine line between ideological and commercial concerns. That seems like a really tricky balance to get especially if you stress the ‘good’ that open data can do and ally yourself to the broader open government agendas. The ODI’s take seems to be to ‘nudge’. Just one open data set from a company or stakeholder is a good thing.  Nudging is great but, as one speaker noted, the open data industry needs radical innovation not small steps.

A lot of open data business relies on the work of others. There seem to be a lot of open data businesses complaining that they can’t succeed because someone else needs to produce data. Shadbolt’s final talk referenced a number of healthcare comparison sites from the US seemingly bemoaning that fact that we could have this if only we had the data!  Somehow not being open is anti-competitive. I can see the business case in that (it’s a supply chain issue). Some speakers from government actively recognized and embraced this – Government’s Digital Director Mike Bracken noted that he saw his job as doing the hard work for others.  But the this reliance on external sources  does make me wonder about the long-term robustness and viability of this space if it’s core business is built on the expectation that others will give them raw material, and I could add for free here but…

Free is one of the most divisive words in open data: Just ask a room full of open data people what free means and see what I mean.

Open data often confuses process with impact: Will Perrin from Openly local had a combative view on the focus on technical standards and the idea that open data is defined by it’s delivery method rather than it’s utility for users – especially when when put against the ‘it makes the world better for people’ claim.  He said: “Putting an API on open government data is fundamentally undemocratic”. He asked delegates not to think of data first but bring the problem that data could solve. In that respect open data is a lot of people with hammers looking for nails.  In a similar context I also noticed that the phrases customer and citizen were interchangeable (even Will did it). Just words but (like fee) very loaded ones that need careful consideration.

The Open data community is like the foreign aid community: Some of the best, simplest examples of open data I saw came from working with (developing) countries developing open government. It’s easy to see how the combination of technology, transparency and engagement works across the boundaries. Its a seductive and satisfying justification for open data advocates. But once there is an open data capacity there, it seems some very ‘first world’ problems creep in (and a fair share of consultants).  If the ‘doing good doing open data ‘ rhetoric is going to have value then, for me, the question of how open data activities manage the transformation from an ‘aid’  model to ‘opening up markets’ model strikes me as a key part in it growing up.

All in all it was valuable and entertaining few days. I really enjoyed it but didn’t get a clear sense of who the community was. Maybe that’s not the point. There was clearly strength in that diversity and one that makes open data really interesting and engaging.

Here’s a list of the ODI’s output from the days:

Full disclosure: I got a rather nice t-shirt, lots of nice stickers and had some nice food and beer at the two days.  Thanks ODI!