Newly available data sources are being used to improve people's lives. We're just starting to understand the potential of data for social good, but some of the challenges are clear: key data and reliable statistics either are not being produced, are of poor quality, or are locked behind government and corporate doors; a lack of technical and political skills is holding back potential users; and there's a gap between what data advocates think citizens want and what the data citizens know will improve their lives.
Whether it's mobile operator records being used to model population movements for improved decision making, journalists and civic hackers taking government budget data to the masses, or activists demanding access to information and holding local officials to account, there is a rich range of actors, applications and challenges when it comes to applying data to the problems of society.
Data are being produced by more entities than ever before: from governments and corporations to citizens themselves. Mobile phone companies and social networks now hold some of the most timely and high resolution data on populations across the globe — these data hold huge potential but are rarely released for use. Advanced governments generally have well-managed data and statistics that are increasingly being released through open government data programs. Governments in developing countries are starting to do the same, but problems with data quality and availability, technical and statistical capacity of their staff and institutions, and both political and legal concerns hold them back.
Different users are taking data and are both applying it to improve people's lives and producing new resources to help others do the same. For all the success of these producers, remixers, and users of data, questions still remain: Do the right people have the right skills and the right data to tackle the most important challenges? Are advocates for open data asking the right questions, demanding the right data, and measuring the right outcomes?
This open data conversation looked at why we should be investing in opening up data even when, or perhaps because, many basic needs aren’t yet met. Under the broad banner of 'open data,' public information is made easier to access, and previously secret information is surfaced. Open data goes beyond access to structured datasets and re-use without cost or restriction. It also includes digital text — such as the up-to-date, in-force constitution, names of members of government, and documents such as resource extraction licenses. Data can make the "accountability stack" transparent, and help people better understand the "civic infrastructure."
Open data originates from official data sources including governments, researchers, and the private sector; can be crowdsourced when no official source exists (see the LandMatrix approach); or inferred by mashing up and repurposing data (e.g. satellite images to detect changes in land use). This data, coupled with intelligent analysis, can be used to effect change by: creating political pressure; giving individual citizens and civil society groups information to stand their ground against powerful institutions; creating incentives for public officials to moderate behaviors; removing common misconceptions and prejudices; and deterring fraud and waste.
We are still laying the foundations for open data, and "it's pretty early in the game to be expecting large scale shifts in the way individuals and communities solve their problems." Standards, portals, platforms, and a sustainable supply of data are all needed before network effects kick in. Even agreeing on what data is needed is tricky. Top-down policy makers might agree on a set of national statistics or indicators, but local issues will vary greatly. We have to ask who might use data and who can add value to the data.
However, availability of data does not automatically solve issues. Access is only one part of the equation. We need to do more than just place datasets online. Having permission to use data does not mean everyone has the capacity to use data. We need more data evangelists, analysts, and translators to tip the balance of power and realize the benefits from open data.
We also need to be very aware of how open data interacts with existing power structures. Is the lack of data really the problem, or is there a lack of political will? There is often a gap between knowing what's wrong with a situation and doing what's needed to correct it. Whether action based on data ultimately succeeds or not depends on the political situation, the social and organizational capital of those working with the data.
There is also a benign assumption that if a little Open Data is good, then a lot is wonderful. However, the act of capturing and translating data is never neutral. It always comes with the worldview of those who interpret it. If governments or corporations have the power to control the interpretation of data, "is it still sunshine?" The results could be used to support particular agendas or increases in surveillance, so data collection can create risk where none existed before. We have seen the benefits of transparency but there needs to be more discussion on privacy, informed consent, and the risks and policies needed to prevent and mitigate misuse and abuse of data. The 'dark side' of big data needs to be managed through good governance, citizen oversight and regulation.
So how do we avoid empowering the empowered, and develop sound mechanisms to gather data that can be used for the uplifting of the poor? “I don't think we'll easily find a linear picture in which giving people 'data + skills' guarantees change,” but it is a great step forward and “increases the likelihood of the "very rare string of events when analysis leads to actionable insights, which leads to implementation, which leads to measurable impact."
Striking Poverty presents conversations about problems related to poverty and development, each with a specific “lens” or way of looking at innovations that address the issue. In this fifth conversation, the problem is “Open Data.” To set the stage for each conversation, the problem profile gives an overview of the nature and scope of the challenge. Suggest a problem or lens through our contact form or via email.
An overview of open data by the Open Knowledge Foundation
A special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics on Open Government Data