Harnessing the value of open data requires reflection on who benefits most.
Real-time traffic and weather updates are just some examples of open data that is helping us. With open data, we can avoid traffic jams and prepare for a heavy thunderstorm.
Open data is also instrumental in achieving a transparent and accountable government. As summarised by researcher Robert Kitchin, open data is expected to promote efficiency and evidence-based decision-making, as well as collaboration between agencies, citizens, and the business sectors. Building robust information and collaboration among different stakeholders will result in better governance. Open data might lead to citizens’ empowerment through the democratisation of information. Data used for decision-making, made available to the public, eliminates data asymmetries, where the government controls the information. Citizens can make sense of data on their own and participate in different initiatives through data use, re-use, service request, or participation in civic hacking initiatives. And, data is a potential resource for economic value generation, such as through the creation of new products and services.
Indeed, much of the initial discussion on open data was optimistic, believing that technology produces positive outcomes and addresses social and environmental issues. However, over the years, researchers such as Jo Bates, Kitchin, and Justin Longo have suggested that behind the long list of promises lie a set of problems that escaped proper investigation and reflection.
Open data is not inherently neutral. Kitchin pointed out that open data is imbued with values since state administrative systems have embedded value structures that shape what data is captured and how data is used and reproduced for the benefits and interests of the dominant political class.
According to Bates, open data might have greater economic benefits for companies than ordinary citizens. Indeed, big companies are in a better position to benefit from access to information, creating economic value from publicly generated data.
Further, a limited number of skilled users make the most of open data and they do not add value to the system itself. These users do not provide feedback nor do they share the results of their data use.
The gap between users that generate data and those who profit from them becomes even more striking if the conceptual lens of ‘Data at the Margins’ developed by Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré is applied. This considers how some marginalised groups might not be in the position of producing or using data of societal relevance. Open data, far from being only a driver for transparency and better governance, is encapsulated in an uneven system that can contribute to further inequities.
The system is oriented to one single type of user, with open data usually released through open data portals that do not differentiate among potential users (for example business versus customers), thus creating an additional barrier for data use.
A way forward is to create a sustainable open data ecosystem, a situation that will serve multiple users, with more stakeholders honing the necessary skills for making use of the information. The value of open data is not trapped but circulates back to society, creating the conditions for an inclusive and equitable use of data.
Shifting the attention from making data available to sustainable use of open data might require a substantial change in the way we conceive this phenomenon. The road to a sustainable open data ecosystem is paved with multiple challenges. Academics, with the support of partners from the public sector, NGOs, journalists, and the private sector are currently finding strategies to connect open data to societal benefits and are trying to answer different questions. How do we measure whether open data is proving beneficial for all the stakeholders, including marginalised groups? More generally, how do we assess the sustainability of the open data ecosystem? The answers are yet to come, but the conversation has started.
Caterina Santoro is a PhD student at the Public Governance Institute of KU Leuven. Her research focuses on socially equitable open data governance and is financed by the ODECO Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network initiative. She tweets @Cattedoppiaesse
Editors Note: Caterina Santoro, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven