Recent events that have shaken stock exchanges throughout the world have not only shown how fragile the economic recovery is, but also proven that technology can help accelerate and amplify dangerous phenomena that lead to financial and possibly political instability.
- A clerical mistake by a trader – who typed a “b” rather than an “m” while selling P&G shares – instantly made the Dow Jones take an all-time plunge, and creating about 15 minutes of panic in Wall Street and around the world.
- Announcements by a rating firm, which have been later retracted, about the vulnerability of sovereign countries to excessive debt have impacted the markets and severely hit stocks in the financial services sector.
- Last week information about the unemployment rate in Spain passing the 20% mark has been issues by the statistical institute before the government could put it in context to defuse ensuing excessive worries.
The first example is quite interesting: the consequences of interconnected systems that drive market behaviors with a degree of automation that far surpasses our ability to control them offer food for thought.
But it is the broader issue of the mass of information that is available to everybody that worries me most.
Let’s imagine that, in the current delicate situation, most governments had already implemented their open plans, achieving unprecedented levels of transparency. I would argue that people in Europe may look into the details (and severity) of their countries’ domestic and foreign debt, mash up data concerning economic growth, employment, consumption, demographic trends, and possibly conclude that the future is much bleaker than what politicians and central bankers officially say. How would those voices contribute to handling the situation, or rather make it worse?
The same may apply in case of an environmental threat, a public safety incident, or just in examining alleged corruption cases involving politicians. Would the wisdom of the crowd converge toward solutions that aim at the common good, or would it just boost uncertainty and fear, making the situation actually worse? Would it turn us into doctors and good Samaritans, or rather into judges or crooks?
What if the crowd were engaged in helping solve the problem of their defaulting country? Would they orderly collaborate to a solution or would the outcome still be riots and strikes? Would revealing lots of data about a nuclear power plant accident close to home make people more comfortable and not jump into their car and run away?
In a world that is much less certain and more volatile than ever before, also thanks to the quantity and speed of information, we may actually have more rather than less need for institutions to trust. Because, when the worse comes to the worse, we always turn to government for a job we don’t have, a surgery we cannot afford, an emergency that needs to be solved.
Open government is great, but it’s fraught with risks. All of us who work in the field have faith that benefits are much greater than risks. But there are risks. Keeping people in the dark is not what a democracy should do and it is not even an option today, as there is so much information available from multiple sources. It is a government responsibility to make sure its information is accurate but also that people who use that information – in whichever shape and form – do understand the context in which it is collected and created.
Anticipating how information will be used and policing possible misuses will soon become core competencies for open government. But also, sometimes being less rather than more open may not be such a bad thing.
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