On April 19, the second day of the GovLab Experiment, participants took part in a variety of half-hour “horas” featuring discussion built around specific themes. The “If Only We Knew…” session asked participants, “What are the most important research questions that, if answered, would radically transform our understanding of open government?”
Hora 4’s central research question revolved around converting data into trustworthy, actionable knowledge to get people engaged.
The discussion was premised on the idea that trust in today’s political environment is fundamentally lacking. The potential of government actors to manipulate data in order to influence the population out of political interest rather than public good is one reason for this lack of trust. A governmental misunderstanding of the types of data that could be valuable to the public is another. With such issues in mind, the question is: how do you turn data into trustworthy and actionable knowledge? Beyond utility and trust, how can we determine what type of information actually gets citizens interested and engaged? Without interest, trust and potential utility, it is difficult to imagine open data initiatives, and citizen engagement efforts in general, finding success.
Below are illustrative examples of the challenges we are experiencing due to our current lack of understanding in this area, current attempts to find out how rectify this lack of understanding and some of the potential benefits of finding meaningful answers.
Challenges From Not Knowing
- The existence of the Sunlight Foundation’s ClearSpending site, a site for “Keeping Tabs on USASpending.gov” demonstrates that, inadvertent or otherwise, the data government releases isn’t always trustworthy. So, unfortunately, instead of using time and resources for making use of government data, people are forced to expend effort to ensure that data’s accuracy.
- While the City of Toronto’s open data portal has matured in recent years, an opinion article from 2011 points to the challenge of providing access to truly actionable data. William Wolfe-Wylie notes, “Every city has been forced to choose between accessibility and immediacy, and Toronto is no exception. Toronto chose immediacy…The problem with Toronto’s approach is while a lot of data is available, very little of it is readable by the average person. Instead, people must rely on the good will of developers…to tell them what it all means. In conclusion, at least at the time of the article’s writing, “Toronto makes information free, but not available.”
Current Attempts to Find Out
- The World Wide Web Foundation recently announced the launch of an in-depth study into how open data can be harnessed to tackle social challenges in the developing world. The project, announced by WWW Foundation founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee called the research an attempt “to ensure that Open Data initiatives in the developing world will unlock real improvements in citizens’ day-to-day lives.” Project manager José M. Alonso says the study’s goal will be “not only to contribute to global understanding of open data, but also to cultivate the ability of developing world researchers and development workers to understand and apply open data for themselves.”
- While trying to ensure that data is actionable is clearly a worthwhile pre-release practice, it’s also important to remember that sometimes data can be actionable in unexpected ways. Mike Flowers, the chief analytics officer in New York, for example, found that, “if a property has a tax lien on it there is a ninefold increase in the chance of a catastrophic fire there. And businesses that have broken licensing rules are far more likely to be selling cigarettes smuggled into the city in order to avoid paying local taxes.” The release of this data may not have appeared immediately useful at first glance, but opening access led to actionable insights.
Potential Benefits of Finding the Answer
- With more trustworthy and actionable data, we could move toward the “Infotopia,” an idea proposed by Archon Fung, where democratic transparency abounds in all sectors. This democratic transparency consists of four principles.
- Information about the operations and actions of large organizations that affect citizens’ interests should be rich, deep, and readily available to the public.
- The amount of available information should be proportionate to the extent to which those organizations jeopardize citizens’ interests.
- Information should be organized and provided in ways that are accessible to individuals and groups that use that information.
- The social, political, and economic structures of society should be organized in ways that allow individuals and groups to take action based on Infotopia’s public disclosures.
- The release of data on hospital Medicare billing practices showed shockingly wide disparities between the prices different hospitals charged for the same procedures. This engaging, important information was widely reported in the mainstream media, and will likely lead to meaningful action due to the understandable public outcry. Some might argue that the average person doesn’t care much about open data, but when presented with information like this, people react and demand action.