Blog post

Open Government Is Targeting the Usual Suspects

By Andrea Di Maio | November 24, 2010 | 7 Comments

open government data

Earlier today I read an interesting article about the importance of story telling in making open government data alive for people who are not in the business of following government.

The article was making reference to an interview that Tim Berners-Lee gave to the press in the UK, where he clearly pointed out that the primary users of open government data are going to be members of the press, hence advocating that they should be better at analyzing data.

The article gave an interesting spin to his interview though, highlighting that Sir Tim “has a vested interest in proving the utility of freed government data” and concluding that

if the data being released by governments these days reflects life as it is being lived behind the scenes and on the ground, then we have to imagine that there’s vastly more potential in the data beyond just creating pictures (no matter how rich the data they contain is) and revealing incidents of what looks like government corruption. At the risk of being reductive, politics is about stories. Life is, in many ways, about stories. It’s a constant throughout the history of our species, at least in its more modern stages. […]. But, generally speaking, the story-telling part of the equation gets far less attention in the open government movement than the importance of story telling would seem to dictate.

At last, somebody else is pointing the finger on how reductive the current open government movement is.

I was having a conversation with a few IT executives in Australia today, who expressed doubts about the value of publishing hundreds of thousands of data sets on web sites like data.gov or data.gov.uk (by the way, this seems to have become a competition between who is publishing more data, does not matter for what).

Are we doing all this to ultimately provide value to citizens? Or just to give more fuel to journalists, political activists, bloggers, advocacy groups to draw more readers or supporters? Are normal people like you and me getting anything concrete out of this? Will we or our children ever get more engaged once we are drawn in data or bombarded by more factoids that different groups pull together to make their point?

I’d love to see open government to turn toward making government not only more transparent, but more effective and efficient. I’d love to see open data to have a reason that goes beyond just creating a better tool for the press and other pretty small target audiences.

But is there really anybody seriously leading that charge at the political level, having the guts to demonstrably focus open government on having an impact on each and every one of us? And for how long will this be left to anonymous and courageous government employees who understand this and do so almost undercover, below the radar screen, while their executives and political leaders – as well as many self-proclaimed government 2.0 experts – keep making their bold pronouncements on publishing more data sets, launching more application contests and –ultimately – ticking more boxes?

The Gartner Blog Network provides an opportunity for Gartner analysts to test ideas and move research forward. Because the content posted by Gartner analysts on this site does not undergo our standard editorial review, all comments or opinions expressed hereunder are those of the individual contributors and do not represent the views of Gartner, Inc. or its management.

Comments are closed

7 Comments

  • @JamesFirth says:

    Sorry I have to disagree strongly with you here. Releasing data sets wholesale even if it *is* just for the press and bloggers still ultimately benefits the public.

    99.5% of the data may be benign and lack a story, but the reason data is released is so that the press, bloggers and activists can research potential issues, and ultimately adds to government transparency.

    Yes there’s a long way to go re usefulness and accessibility, but I feel we have to get the data out there and see what people do with it to help drive development of apps that will better serve the public. Better have a host of amateurs, professionals using their free time, bloggers, activists and journalists working on the problem *alongside* the usual suspects in government.

    Plus too many “stories” are handed to [select] members of the press wholesale. Releasing the raw data should ultimately help reduce the press’ reliance on being fed the government line *and* help reduce favouritism amongst political journalists (ie those who toe the government line, hence reducing barriers to entry for being a responsible political journalist.

    I’m not sure at the insinuation that the press, bloggers and activists don’t work in the interest of the electorate. Whilst many publications obviously have their own profit and political agenda to consider, the net effect – plurality of reporting ESPECIALLY given the increased prominence of bloggers and activists – is I feel overwhelmingly in the interest of the electorate.

    Full disclosure – I’m an IT consultant but I’m also a blogger and have professional ties to data management and presentation for national news outlets.

  • Hi Andrea – I tend to agree, if perhaps on different terms. I think this open data thing is more of a fad than well thought out mechanism for empowering citizens. Open inert data is definitely a good thing, but it is a small part of a much bigger picture. I left a more detailed comment over on this O’Reilly Radar post just now – http://radar.oreilly.com/2010/11/coding-the-middleware-for-open.html, but the bottom line is we need to be influencing the processes behind this inert data to have real participation – this is where the policy lies. Lack of policy transparency, influence or feedback is a real millstone for Gov 2.0 – an elephant in the room hiding behind open data hype. Cheers,

    Colin

  • Alex Howard says:

    I read the same article; nowhere did I read Berners-Lee clearly saying the primary use of data sets is for journalism. I talked to him last week about the UK government’s austerity plans; I didn’t get that sense then either. The Guardian piece emphasizes that the father of the World Wide Web sees database journalism as a key part of the media’s future – perhaps even THE future, given his statement – but the reductive leap you’ve taken doesn’t appear to be grounded in the substance of the comments nor coverage as presented.

    On that count, do you think the press is a “pretty small target” audience, given that the stories they tell are still the ones most citizens will read, watch and hear?

    What do you think of what US CIO Kundra has said or written about the applications of open data for efficiencies, citizen utility, accountability or economic value creation?

    As to your comment about “normal people like you and me,” I think we can agree that neither you (nor I) are an average citizen:
    http://www.gartner.com/AnalystBiography?authorId=12603

    No need to use open data to figure that out.

  • @David_R8 says:

    I think you miss the point. If the press has access to this data, so does everyone else. The playing field is level and anyone that cares can use the same data to verify, refute, or re-frame the issue.

    Note that I said “anyone that cares”. There will always be a large number of people who do not engage in a public issue. And their opinions will continue to be formed by media.

    @JamesFirth makes a good point about the plurality of reporting being at the interests of the electorate. However, this will only bear fruit if the electorate choses to consume a broad variety of media. Any one media source alone will not create the intended effect.

  • @David @James I do not think I ever said in this blog that providing open data is a bad thing. Indeed greater transparency is always good. What I am saying is that
    (1) those who are going to use this data will always be professionals, and they will always give their spin as they do today – newspapers and magazines all have their political orientation. On the other hand, as they are in the business of hunting for information and FOI exists already, what is the value added for the public at large? More stories based on more data?
    (2) more importantly, all this effort seems oriented toward explaining what government does, in order to impact the policy-making process. But there is very little, close to nothing, addressing areas like service delivery, improvement of government operations, reduction of costs. Or, better, there is no direct correlation.
    that’s why I think we need to change gear, and turn from targeting the press and political activists, to addressing open government efforts to concretely help people get better services.

  • @Alex – First of all apologies for the delay in getting your comments online. I am not in control of the moderation rules, and I know that comments including links get moderated to avoid spam. Unfortunately I am in Australia to I was guilt of being sleeping as you posted your comment.
    The press is a usual target and, as I said in a previous response, they can get data already via freedom of information. As far as Vivek, I like the vision, but where is the evidence that hundreds of thousands of data sets are actually being used to improve service effectiveness and efficiency?
    So I’m afraid but you guys are still looking at the tip of the iceberg. I hope it is just a matter of time, but I suspect people need a bit more than terabytes of data thrown at them (and the usual suspects) to see real change. Where are the grants targeted to new communities rather than application developers? Where are government employees being engaged in bridging gaps rather than keeping a hands off approach?

  • hybrid cars says:

    Having personally witnessed government worker bees creating a wealth of ” pseudo information” for nothing more than personal pyramid building, I’m inclined to take any piece of this wealth of information with a grain of salt.

    I’ve seen whole departments created that do nothing more than take the data of other departments. or just make something up, then produce even more of these important reports, convincing their superiors, that it’s something new.

    The real need, is for some real critical analysis of the data, and then reporting only those nuggets that should be brought to light, rather than the usual method of spewing copious volumes of garbage attached to sensational titles, which accomplish little more than distracting us, the public, from what’s really significant.