FutureEverything: Notes Against Openness

I’m really looking forward to being part of FutureEverything in Manchester next week, where I’ll be a panellist at Open Data Manchester on Tuesday and at Policies and Politics of Open Data on Thursday. Each event starts with five-minute lead-ins from the panel members. Some of the panellists are real experts who know more than I do about open data, but “in for a penny, in for a pound”: so on Tuesday I’ll use my five minutes to argue against standards (and especially universal standards), and on Thursday I’ll argue that openness is an idea that has outlived its usefulness.

Here are notes for Thursday’s opening remarks, which will be familiar to regular readers. I think I’ll have to cut them down a bit for time.

We all know that the ideas and actions around “Open Government Data” have created a very wide umbrella that covers many different agendas. It covers civil liberties campaigners, civic activists, startups, politicians from across the political spectrum, and major international corporations. And we all know that those agendas and groups are a bit uncomfortable being in such close proximity. But like “freedom”, “openness” is something that everyone can agree on, and it’s served to paper over the cracks between these disparate interests.

Unfortunately, it looks to me increasingly as if the language of transparency, the language of non-commercial civic engagement, and the romantic language of rebellion are being used to provide an exciting and appealing facade for an agenda that has nothing to do with transparency, nothing to do with civic participation, and a lot to do with traditional power politics and profit making.

It’s time to get out from under the umbrella and to acknowledge that we are in different camps with different goals. And to do that we need to get rid of the idea that “openness” is an unalloyed virtue.

Here are two examples of how openness is being misused.

The first is about openness and transparency, and it’s from Canada where I live and of which I am a citizen. The Government of Canada has an active open data program. It’s a member of the Open Government Partnership, now chaired by Francis Maude; if you look in Capgemini’s recent white paper on The Open Data Economy you’ll see Canada together with the UK, the USA, France, and Australia as one of the government trendsetters. Last October Jonathan Rosenberg of Google posted an article on the company web site titled “The Future is Open“, in which he wrote:

Claims to governmental transparency are one thing – moves like the one Canada made recently, with its formal Open Government Declaration, are another. The document recognises that open is an active state, not a passive one – it’s not just that data should be free to citizens whenever possible, but that an active ‘culture of engagement’ should be the goal of such measures.

So three cheers for open government Canada? Of course, that’s only one side of the story. Here’s a list of other events in Canada around openness and transparency.

  • Library and Archives Canada, which is the equivalent of the British Library, has seen its acquisition and lending programs cut back. Its historical item spending has been cut from $385K (’08-’09) to $12K (’12-’13) as its overall budget has been cut from $173M to $108M. (Toronto Star, March 10, 2013)
  • The Government is “muzzling its scientists” according to the BBC. A protocol introduced in 2008 requires that “all interview requests for scientists employed by the government must first be cleared by officials. A decision as to whether to allow the interview can take several days, which can prevent government scientists commenting on breaking news stories. Sources say that requests are often refused and when interviews are granted, government media relations officials can and do ask for written questions to be submitted in advance and elect to sit in on the interview.”
  • Cuts to Statistics Canada: in response to yet another wave of cuts, a group of concerned academics recently wrote that “For many of us, it started with the census. In a controversial move, our government switched from a mandatory to a voluntary census in the summer of 2010. The former Statistics Canada chief, the media and the research community reacted with shock and largely opposed the change to no avail … We have now halted the collection and analysis of our most informative longitudinal information on our labour force, on the workplace, on health and health care, and on child well-being. Add to this our universal census of the population. How might Canada expect to meet the policy challenges of the future when we no longer have the ability to understand where we are today?” (University of Manitoba)
  • The move to packaging legislation in so-called “Omnibus bills” that cover many different initiatives in a single, perhaps several hundred page, package has severely curtailed public debate over new initiatives and major legislative changes.

If there’s a message here, it’s just that openness cannot be measured in bytes. And if someone is measuring it in bytes, then you have to wonder what the motives are. So the CapGemini report (above) looks at the Open Data Economy simply by comparing the open data portals that each nation has produced. This is datawashing.

A brief second story. If you look at what kind of new economic possibilities are being promoted by open data, CapGemini highlights Zillow, a Real Estate Advertising network based in California, which uses open tax data, county records, and home-for-sale listings. If there is one industry who has proved able to use the language of openness and disruption to great effect, it’s the Silicon Valley venture capital industry. But whereas when Linus Torvalds started Linux “openness” was a tool for individuals to build something to compete with large enterprises, now “openness” is a tool for large enterprises with a lot of funding to hammer smaller non-profit groups. We hear the language of openness and disruption coming in education, where Coursera and Udacity can go to Davos and paint themselves as radicals, to Uber and AirBnB, whosee millionaires claim to be part of a “sharing economy” disrupting nightmare overlords like the Bed & Breakfast industry or the taxi cartels. We are seeing the emergence of a winner-take-all economy in which small organizations and small businesses are severely handicapped against those with capital behind them. All in the name of openness.

If we see civic participation as an end in itself, which I do, then we need to treat civic computing like a cultural activity. That means we need to build some barriers to protect civic-scale groups from large companies who have advantages of scale, and who can deliver “efficiency” but not participation. Tony Ageh of the BBC, speaking at this conference, describes a vision of public domain data as a “commons” but I think he gets it wrong. A commons is not a free-for-all, where anyone can come and take anything they want. A commons suggests a group of people who all have an interest in maintaining and cultivating a shared resource, and that suggests limits to access from outside. There is room for a number of models of providing mixed access to data, from non-commercial licenses, to closed partnerships between cities and citizen groups, to non-standard formats for sharing that reflect the quirks of individual cities and groups. Each of these seems to break the idea of “openness” in one way or another, but we should be prepared to do so. Openness in and of itself is not enough to hold together a worthwhile coalition and it’s time to get over it.

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  1. I’m going to be fairly critical here, but in good faith. My critique is not that I disagree with this or that but this is quite unsystematic.

    Most of these kinds of critiques –yours included, Tom– are conflating two or three things and using item from one kind to refute and item from another kind.

    Here are some versions of the critiques of open that are floating out there:

    1- Is “open” being used as a cover for another agenda? For example MOOCS. (Even though it may all eventually threaten my job, I do really understand why the openness of MOOCs have real positive sides–chalk it to not having grown up in a privileged environment and spending most of my life –till the Internet came along– looking for things to learn and read–and running out. I’d have benefited immensely from MOOCs had they been around.) So, in these cases, it is useful to point out that “open” is being used for another agenda and the “open” aspect is not the politically crucial one.

    2-Are there genuine downsides to open? Frankly, I see fairly few problems with MOOCs per se had it not been tied to an agenda of destroying certain kind of education that depends on direct interaction and seen as replacement for it. So that’s not the problem with them. On the other hand, “open” to mean we get to see everyone’s health records? Well, duh. That’s not good. That’s hardly a critique, though. That’s a clear political issue about power and who has the right to see and be visible. Here, the key issue is not usually about “open” but about power.

    3-Are there situations in which “open” has its value but –almost concurrently– brings downsides–especially as technical affordances destory previous mechanisms of protection such as practical obscurity (criminal and court records are the obvious examples in the United States.) I think this is the most worthy discussion.

    The first one is a political fight and is barely about open–those with the agenda couldn’t care about the open part. The second critique, well, as I said. Duh. Not everything should be visible to everyone, and the principle should be that we should especially defend not to be visible for those that are most powerless against those who have the most power. Kinda in that order–you can get into the specifics as we examine cases.

    Third one is very much worth discussing but, as we start discussing, we’ll find that it greatly depends on the specifics of each context. And the third kind should be discussed as itself–rather than being conflated with the other cases.

    Hence, I find many critiques of “open” to be fairly fluffy–it’s a way to be visible the same way the way to proclaim “open” is a way for current MOOC proponents (especially in California) to actually attack higher education. Quite honestly, it seems like if they could claim that being on campus gives you the cooties and get away with it, that’s the argument they’d use.

    So, here are some issues. For example, you are critiquing the state of Canada for using the rhetoric of opennes and not being open. Why is that in a piece in which you are supposed to be talking about ” we need to get rid of the idea that “open­ness” is an unal­loyed virtue.” That is a good discussion; however,your example of Canadian government is not one of that. It’s one of hypocrisy and not really being open in ways that matter.

    I like the topic but there much unsystematic discussion going on. Why do I care?
    Well, the easy critique co-exists with using openness as a fig-leaf. It creates the appearance of debate, but does not provide a real one. It just generates attention, not depth.


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  3. Zeynep – thanks for the thoughtful comments. I do flag that these are notes for a panel discussion: four panellists with different points of view each get 5 minutes to make a lead-off statement, and then there will be more talk, so the point here was to stake out some ground in the context of a discussion about Open Government Data. In that context I think both (1) and (2) are relevant, but I agree that (3) is the most worthy discussion of openness overall.

    Openness does have cultural and political sides, but I tend to look at it from an economic point of view. Openness lowers the price of whatever is being made open to near zero, but it also increases the demand for complements to the thing being made open. So IBM and HP adopted Linux to improve the prospects for their hardware, and Red Hat and Novell adopted Linux to sell services and support. Openness tends to “disrupt” one market, but create markets in complementary products.

    There is an obvious tension between these two goals: often between those who are looking for an alternative to profit-making businesses and those who want to build a bigger one. Sometimes a coalition can hold together, but the real problems come when the complementary market is naturally monopolistic, which applies to much of the Web 2.0 world (after the failure of the Affero GPL license to make an impact). When it comes to Open Government Data, cases like the Bhoomi land use record initiative in India replaced a lot of small operators with local power by some big operators with large-scale power. In the same way, the “sharing economy” outfits want to disrupt local rent collectors (taxi industries etc) and replace them with one big rent collector (Uber, for example). I think this dynamic is quite prevalent in the Open Government Data space.

    Anyway, obviously that’s too schematic and sketchy to be convincing. The closest I’ve got to spelling it out properly is here, and I’m sure it’s not an argument that’s original to me.

  4. Let me start by saying that I think the cases worth discussing are like those of Bhoomi land records, Map Kibera, Über, etc. The other examples you have –such as the hypocricy of the Canadian government — are not an argument against the transparent government efforts. If anything, it is an argument for how much more we need pro-governmental transparency efforts. I still don’t see how it fits into your argument. So I am skipping over that part.

    So, streamlining bureaucracies can, indeed, lead to an incredible improvement in the lives of poorest people. My own native country, Turkey, has undergone such a development and things that used to take weeks and months of people’s lives (and cause enormous angst) have become much easier. But, as you note, such changes almost always bring about shifts in power relations as well and, in many cases, those who are in a position to take advantage of those new developments are those already powerful. In Turkey, certain parts of e-government streamlining are, in my view, also helping entrench the power of the current government. Story is too complicated to summarize here, but, obviously there are many such cases.

    So, yes, the rich get richer or knowledge gap theories are very much in play here. Land records that are not easy to find can provide a kind of protection against a certain kind of development that you write about in that post. Streamlining and or opening of monopolies does not necessarily lead to a flat environment of perfect competition.

    But that, in and of itself, is not an argument *against* open data; it’s an argument about power. It’s not clear that the poor are better off under the old regime–if anything, it’s a fight between the ancien regime and the newcomers with little consideration of the groups that are disadvantaged under both.

    Frankly, I’m not comfortable with a critique of “open” that ends up being a defense of the status-quo (just as I would not be comfortable with the notion open=good under all circumstances–but that mostly is a caricature so let’s not bother). Defense of status-quo is often accomponied by hiding of existing privileges. Let’s not do that.

    Let’s go back to the case of Über. My first reaction was kind of similar to yours–I thought, hah, are they just trying to escape regulations? I can see how regulations can be stiffling but I’m not a laissez-faire idelogue–laisez fairre too often means let the biggest guy beat the rest of them up with no restraint. So, I was suspicious of the idea of charging twice as much for the mere convenience of not having to flag a cab–especially if it meant there were fewer cabs on the street for those unable to afford the higher charge.

    Then I started hearing from people who live in in New York. Non-white people.People who needed to go to Brooklyn–in the rain. Pregnant people who could not wait for 40 minutes in the corner. Sick people who needed to go in the wrong direction.

    Men–especially black and brown men. Men who could not pay to be taken to their destination. Their money was not good enough, ever. Stories of being passed over again and again and again–the cab driving past them to stop by the white, non-threatening woman who was going somewhere in Manhattan. In other words, me. My experience of taxis in New York was obviously colored by my race and gender–colored literally. I was reacting against the disruption of a system that clearly favored me.

    As I heard more of the stories, I got mad. They were truly infuriating.

    So, I started thinking about the balance of power in the case of Über. To my surprise, I started somewhat rooting for it–if it meant that the taxi cabs would be scared to behave the way they can with people going in an undesired direction and possessing an undesired skin color.

    I agree that the complementary markets often tend to be monopolistic as well–network externalities are strong with the Web 2.0. So, if the taxi markets opened up, would Über be a new monopoly and what would that mean? That is a worthy consideration.

    But, once again, that is not an argument against “open”–it is an argument for keeping open realyl open in spite of network externalities. It’s an argument against monopoly emergence and how new media systems often facilitate monopolies so well. The question should be how can we structure the taxi markets in large, racially-mixed cities in the United States so that the kind of indignity that seems so utterly common is penalized?

    When you think about it that way race and destination-blind hailing of taxis seems like an obvious step to try–and given that this can be arranged with even a simple text-based system so that it’s available to everyone who has any kind of cell-phone, this seems like an experiment worth trying. So, you can look at Über in two ways: as an unfair challenge to one monopoly market (taxi cabs) or you can look at it as race and destination-blind hailing of taxis.

    One can be quite critical of unbridled capitalism but also realize that there are a few things worse than that. One is being redundant rather than merely exploited–a fate that is facing large swaths of the global economy including young people in rich countries. The other is being discriminated against for non-market reasons: race, neighborhood, gender…

    To sum up, the worthy arguments here are about network externalities, non-market forms of discrimination and how we weigh these against market-forms of discrimination–(i.e. racism versus expensive taxi rides), the impact of removing of practical obscurity (land records, Map Kibera –which I did not get to discussing but which I visited last summer so maybe more on that later) on power structures in a given setting, etc.

    I’m still failing to see that “Note against Openness” describes any of these, though.


    • I think there are two areas of disagreement here: one is my presentation, and one is the content.

      On presentation, I’ll take the blame. I also dislike headline-grabbers and posts that claim to “start a conversation” and I did both here. My excuse is that my brain was in the context of a particular conversation that is going to happen, and the title was intended in that specifically-open-data context too. But here in the blog the context is different. Mea culpa.

      On content. My claim really is that openness is often insufficient grounds to hold together a coalition between those who position themselves against existing institutions and those who seek to build newer and shinier ones, and in that context I think the Canadian government case matters: it’s a case of Actually Existing Open Data, and the purposes to which it is put. However, your comment about ending up as a defense of the status quo is one that rings true and that I may be guilty of.

      The Uber/racism issue is a fascinating one. Ironically in the context of openness, Uber can’t discriminate because it doesn’t have the information to do so. All the system has is a credit card number, not a skin colour, so there is no ability to discriminate. An old university friend of mine is now an eminent criminologist and I’ve seen a talk of his about police surveillance and speeding enforcement. He points out that if police officers ticket people in person for speeding, there is more racism than if an automated camera snaps shots of your license plate in an automated fashion – which is similar to the Uber case. But he also points out that discrimination can pop up in other places, such as the placement of those automated cameras and the other uses to which they are put. I’ve no idea if there is an equivalent for Uber.

      And now I have to pack if I’m going to get to this panel discussion that the post is for. I’ll be offline for a few days: thanks again for the thought-provoking comments.

    • There is so much that is fake about the open source movement, there is so much that is sinister about its vicious attempts to impose this cultism on real life and society at large outside its fetid little coder cults.

      I don’t need to rehearse this because I’ve written about it passionately for 10 years at this point. It’s about the way in which the “open” nerds are always the first to mute and ban you from any group or site if you criticize them; it’s about how “open government” merely means some anodyne and nearly useless set of data that the government pretends to give you like “hospital infection hotspots” for promoting health businesses instead of, oh, data on drone attacks; it’s about “open gov” and “Code for America shills in my city are coding apps for where the bars are and the girls are and the designated drivers are, but not the clean toilets.

      Zeynap, I live in New York, too, and I’m simply not sharing your solutionism here and your fetishizing of Uber as a tech totem dropped into the pond. First, I have had relatives, friends, neighbours, in the cab, limousine and jitney business. Do you? Uber undercuts immigrants — including poor immigrants of colour and Muslims — it undercuts people in the lower working class trying to maintain steady jobs for years; it puts the public at risk; it shafts its own workers as we’ve just learned by news coverage of their complaints. This is all well established.

      I’m baffled as to why your concern for people of colour and minorities and the downtrodden doesn’t extend *to those people driving all the yellow cabs, town cars, car services, and jitney cars right now in this city*. It just boggles the mind.

      The black men in the black neighbourhoods, the pregnant women in poor neighbourhoods, etc. use the jitneys or the unofficial cabs, such as in the Bronx or in Spanish Harlem or way out in Coney Island. As you surely must know, this is a car service for $3 or $4 you take with as many as six other people wedged into a run-down car, usually driven by an Indian or black man, sometimes a Russian, taking you through black neighbourhoods. I know about this because I constantly use it to visit relatives who live in this area. THAT is the kind of service people use. NOT UBER. Uber disrupts the established driver ecosystem that provides entry-level jobs for immigrants and the poor; it also disrupts the informal driver ecosystem that in fact serves all those people you describe movingly in your post. My family ans well as my black neighbours, colleagues, co-workers all take these types of services into neighbourhoods where sometimes (although increasingly less is my sense) yellow cabs won’t go. They already exist. They may not be so regulated. Or they might be, as car services.

      But Uber undercuts those legions of minority, poor people driving other minority, people people. Don’t you get this?! These services appeared organically, naturally, in little local markets, and sustain the lifeblood of those areas. Uber, on the other hand, is injected by the Internet with fierce, cynical, greedy California violence. Pando Daily has been excellent in exposing this.

      I marvel that you could have this experience that we all have in New York, and even admit that Uber charges twice as much, and then come with savage Better Worldery to suggest that therefore we should have the open Internet’s coercion and disruption of markets to make some Silicon Valley tycoon rich as a solution to the problem of safety in neighbourhoods. The solution is already present. The answer if you really care about people of colour and drivers and poor neighbourhoods is to use existing immigrant businesses and also make it easier for people to get licenses and pay for medallions with cooperatives or reform of the TLC. It isn’t to put in Uber. All that Uber will do is jack up the price for dangerous neighborhoods, affecting the market adversely that way.

      There is no monopoly in yellow cabs precisely because of the limousine services which range from expense-account fancy to beat-up Russian station-wagon or over-crowded Indian-driven jitney. That’s the reality here.

  5. Thank you both Tom & Zeynep. A fascinating discussion, which I was reminded of when I read the first paragraphs of this article about Beppe Grillo and M5S.


    Seems to me that there is an occasion where thankfully there was no “openness” about who cast what votes?

  6. Tom–let us know how the panel goes.

    Ishmael–there are lots of arguments on how secrecy can help deal-making of the good kind. Obviously, one can find examples and face-saving and negotiating do sometimes seems to benefit from lack of visibility…

    But.. We probably haven’t really experienced the counterfactual enough. I am watching a few examples now when open negotiations in conflicted situations are going better than previous attempts to do them secretly (to let parties save face and to not let polarized publics destroy the process). The open negotiations aren’t going too badly. This is to my surprise… So maybe we are just thinking according to norms of an era when one could have secret negotiations. We’ll see.

  7. Yes – good luck with the Panel discussion Tom, hopefully it might be recorded and go up on YouTube?

    BTW, did you know you have a fellow critique of openness in the last few months, a PhD graduate from my Uni here in Melbourne, Australia, Nate Tkacz?
    See http://www.aeonmagazine.com/world-views/nathaniel-tkacz-open-source-government, and for a longer more academic version, http://www.ephemeraweb.org/journal/12-4/12-4tkacz.pdf

    — Patrick S.

  8. Hi Tom – I came across a related argument re Open Data to yours – arguing for a “fair value license”, which would require users of Open Data who go on to make a profit to contribute a % back to the state (ie generators of the data).


    He’s arguing a bit more purely from an economic perspective rather than civic participation :- but I think his rhetorical link of “giving away state data” to the 80s/90s privatisation of public utilities craze is a telling one.

    • Thanks Patrick. Orlowski is an interesting character: abrasive and argumentative, but that’s OK. I always find the Register one of the most interesting of the IT trade sites, and I think his fair value idea has a lot going for it.

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