Blog post

Open Government: It Is Not All Gold That Glitters

By Andrea Di Maio | September 11, 2009 | 5 Comments

open government data

While the echo of a thrilling and successful Gov 2.0 Summit still resounds in the Beltway and beyond, I want to complete the sequence of sobering and somewhat pessimistic observations I have purposely been posting this week to counterbalance hype and enthusiasm.

According to an article published by Government Executive

… Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been ripped off by con artists promising free government funds through the Recovery Act, a top federal watchdog testified during a congressional oversight hearing on Thursday…

… Many of these schemes require consumers to pay substantial amounts of money in a fruitless attempt to obtain a much larger grant. Others simply ask consumers to provide personal information, or send a very small payment to get information on how to get free government grant money…

… In total, at least 270,000 Americans have been duped out of roughly $30 million

These have not been the first and won’t be the last on-line scams that target government information and service users. However one needs to reflect about whether and how open government data that can be mashed up and aggregated by third parties may constitute an additional avenue for fraudulent activities.

What if a third party service uses only a subset of the government data and replace others with fake or inaccurate data to influence user behaviors and purchases? For instance, a realtor web site may misrepresent data about – say – air or water quality to influence the price of a particular property. Most likely the web site would mash up loads of information about amenities, shops, schools, transportation, coming from both government and private service providers. How can a user know that those data are being accurately mashed up and they are not being selectively picked up or event replaced by the masher?

What if the ability to access and integrate lots of government data helps give credibility and a sense of a trust into an organization that would look otherwise quite questionable? For instance, a crook could qualify as a trusted business advisor to small and medium size businesses by being smart at mashing up demographic, education, environment and economic data. How many more con artists will open data create or legitimate?

I am firmly convinced that open government data will generate far more good than evil, and that the latter is a natural component of any human activity. One can just hope that with more eyes watching for each other, illegal or unethical behaviors will be easier to intercept. But this requires a recognition that – indeed – it is not all gold that glitters.

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  • Alorza says:

    OK, Andrea, but isn’t this a trivial observation?

    Every new thing, every new technology, carries both good and bad consequences. When good consequences are much bigger than the bad ones, we normally adopt the new thing.

    Is there something more I can’t see?

  • @Alorza – indeed it is and it is meant to be. But how comes that people seems to forget? How comes that when we try to figure out the value that open data can create, awards go to relatively straightforward examples? As I said in yesterday’s post, we need to be more ambitious and focused in showing value, but also more through in exploring risks. Risks that may seriously undermine what governments are trying to do to gain their citizen’s trust by using new technologies.

  • PaulGeraghty says:

    What a good example of what could go wrong.

    The question is what steps could be taken to negate this type of abuse?

    Just because I, as masher#1 sign an agreement not to alter the values of a data-set does not mean that masher#2 can take my data and reuse it.

    Unless maybe :

    -the terms of any licence are viral
    -registration is required before you can use the data

    It is hard to see how technology can come to the rescue here, unless “semantic search” can accurately identify the various islands upon which this data surfaces.

  • Brian Ahier says:

    I agree that we need to be cautious, but you are also correct “that open government data will generate far more good than evil.”
    I wonder if strong regulations on the use of government data are necessary as the data is released…
    If a mashup includes an official government data set, then it makes sense that we should try to ensure that the integrated data from other sources is clean – this could get very tricky!

  • Clarifying the post, we quote a warning that there is some confusion. Apparently the strategic factor of open government is being sacrificed in favor of leaving the main eAdministration the accessory below ..