Reactions to ‘Why the “Open Data Movement” is a Joke’

[Update: In the light of morning I dislike this post. I'll leave it up, but it is too defensive, explains too much, and is too conciliatory given what was thrown at me yesterday.]

This morning's post, Why the "Open Data Movement" is a Joke, attracted more attention than most of what I've written here. Largely this was a result of a Twitter debate between Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) and O'Reilly Media's Alex Howard (@digiphile). Thanks also to Lorenz Matzat (@lorz) and Ryan Shaw (@rybesh) for arguing broadly in favour of the post.

Alex Howard hated the piece, calling it "ill-informed", "lazy, ignorant writing" that "didn't even bother to cite the relevant scholarship", "demonstrably incorrect", "laughable" and more. He also writes that "The author has a habit of writing polemics that include errors or omissions of fact." I am terrible at expressing anything in 140 chars so I'll respond here.

First, it should be obvious that the post was prompted by events here in Canada – and yet no one has actually mentioned any of the Canadian content in any of the comments about the post. This is frustrating. The last five years have been terrible ones for accountability and transparency in this country and yet Canada has just joined and endorsed the Open Government Partnership (link). Does this conjunction say anything about "open data" as a goal? To me it says that a technological "open data" agenda does not indicate a political "open data" agenda, and that — as I wrote about the Wikileaks cables a year ago (link) –the fault lines of political beliefs run perpendicular to attitudes about technology, not parallel. So it made me wonder if the idea of open data as a goal for a coherent movement holds water, and whether "opening government via technology" make sense. To Alex Howard – well I don't really know, because for all his outrage he doesn't actually say anything about the first half of the post or about the events that obviously moved me to write it and led to the frustrated tone I wrote it in.

Beyond that, he seems to confuse my contention that the idea of open data as a "movement" is a joke with a broader claim that "open data" is a waste of time or that people working on making data open are all dupes. No such thing! Open data can be a fine thing, but I'd much rather have a fully-staffed StatsCan charging for data than a half-staffed StatsCan providing it for free. Which would he choose? Obviously a fully-staffed StatsCan providing data for free would be ideal, but it doesn't look like we're getting that any time soon. The UK's Francis Maude, the incoming co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, says that "we want to create an army of armchair auditors who can hold government to account". This would be nice, but not at the cost of a real independent auditor.

I suspect that Alex Howard and I just see the world from different points of view. Que sera, sera. But from what I know the Sunlight Foundation is on the side of the angels so I was disappointed to see that Tom Lee of the Sunlight Foundation considered my post "a jumbled mess". I do realize that coalition politics makes strange bedfellows, and that broad coalitions can still be worthwhile, but some tents can be so big that they collapse in a shapeless pile of canvas. I worry that the open data tent is one such, and that the apparent common goals of some people under the canvas hide bigger differences.  I share the concerns of Alex Howard's colleague Nat Torkington when he writes this:

Obama and his staff, coming from the investment mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that creates a space for economic opportunity, informed citizens, and wider involvement in decision making so the government better reflects the community's will. Cameron and his staff, coming from a cost mindset, are building a Gov 2.0 infrastructure that suggests it will be more about turning government-provided services over to the private sector.

For me, the gap between the two visions is fundamental and makes the idea that these two goals are part of the same movement, well, a joke. The tension/contradiction between commercial and civic interests that these sentences highlight is one division that seems unresolved and yet fundamental. So having read the responses, I stand by what I wrote.

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  1. Tom,
    Your final paragraph captured the fundamental tension within the UK. There is a desire to have transparency without openess. I think Obama and co. are more along the lines of the open movement in the belief of creating a public space. Cameron and co. see it differently because their focus on transparency is almost at the cost of openness. They will decide what they want to release when they release it rather than opening up access to the data.
    A deeper problem, though, is the politicization of the data. The open data movement has an implicit (perhaps explicit) democratic bias. However, the internet and the powers that control the data are not necessarily seeing such radical democracy of access and openness. (This is not saying UK or USA is undemocratic rather that the difference in the open data movement and the general politcal structure are not as radical.)
    I have written on the issue of politicised data here:
    I would be interested in your views and whether open data can overcome that politicization or whether it is, by its nature, vulnerable to such political manipulation and therefore inherently unstable as a movement.

  2. Tom: A couple of points, since you’ve specifically mentioned me here.
    First, an apology for the tone and tenor of my comments online. I’m not proud of the language I used in that context and I wish I’d been more considered. The last time I read one of your posts, it did indeed suffer from an incomplete assessment of the facts available — as I commented — and I felt this was the case here as well. Morozov’s points about your raising critical questions are legitimate, however, and my comments could easily be read as being dismissive of their pertinence. That’s not good behavior, and I’m sorry for it.
    I did think — and still do — that the latter half of your post needed to include some basic research that would have improved its discussion of the issues involved, particularly with respect to the tension between open data and open government. Tom Lee’s assessment is fair and accurate here and might be a guide for self-reflection, given that, as you say, Sunlight is “on the side of the angels.”
    The comments you are receiving on that post — particularly Carl Malamud’s — may serve as a bellwhether there.
    I’d refer you to the discussion in the latter portion of this article: and a recent research paper by Yu and Robinson: along with the broader discussion you’ll find in civil society in the lead up to the Open Government Partnership, where this dynamic was the subject of much concern, and not just in a Canadian or UK context.
    One reason that your post may have received this attention — and continues to do so — is that it does not read as “The problem with open data versus open government in Canada” but instead as an indictment of what’s happening in the U.S. or around the world.
    You walk this back a bit in this post to clarify what you meant. I suspect that if you’d stopped after the first half of what you’d written and taken that focus, I wouldn’t be surprised to see people from civil society and NGOs nodding along.
    One reason those legitimate concerns are not receiving the attention that you might like may be that you coupled them with a headline and analysis that distract from them.
    As the conversation on Twitter and elsewhere in the public sphere over the past few years has demonstrated, there are a lot of different perspectives on what purposes “open data” should serve, often informed by what the watcher intends or the organization’s goals.
    There are people who want to see legislature open their data, to provide more insight into those processes.
    In the U.S., has been making government legislative data open.
    There are others who wish to see campaign finance data open, like the Sunlight Foundation, to show where influence and power lies in the political system.
    There are others who wish to see transit data or health data become more open, in the service of more civic utility or patient empowerment — you can look at the efforts of the VA in the US on that count — and if you consider that such data can include ratings or malpractice information about hospitals or doctors, or fees for insurance companies, transparency and accountability is a goal, which in turn does have political implications.
    One could spend quite a bit of time listing organizations or individuals who are putting data online, from Carl Malamud to open government activists in Brazil, Africa or yes, Canada.
    Whether you wish to describe those activities as a movement is up to you — but it is indisputable that 3 years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a open government data platform. Now there are dozens at the national level. What matters more than their existence is what goes onto them, however, and there people have to be extremely careful about giving governments credit for just putting a “portal” online.
    There are also, notably, many civil society and media organizations that are collecting and sharing open data, from OpenCorporates to OpenCongress, and startups as well, like Brightscope.
    There are a lot of different voices in this space. Asking hard questions is important and useful, particularly given that motivations and context will differ from country to country and from industry to civil society. In my country, there is a sizable group of people that believe that data created using public funds should in turn be made available to the public — and that the Internet is a highly effective place to make such data available. (See the Sunlight Foundation’s support for POIA, or “Public = Online.) Such thinking extends to research or code now too.
    Whether one agrees with that or not is, of course, something that free thinkers in democratic society to decide for themselves. Given the pervasive tendency towards more secrecy, not less, and my experience in open government over the past few years, my tendency is towards public by default as opposed to its inverse.
    Finally, since you brought the source of your frustration up, I want to be clear: the issues you cited with respect to Canada’s open government record are not founded in speculation, as your links and points demonstrate (although as one commenter pointed out, a link used regarding a firing goes back to 2004). The Harper administration has received the dubious distinction of a secrecy award. It did cancel Canada’s long-form census, prompting the resignation of the head of the Statscan service. And journalists have been confronted with limited access to government scientists, much in the same vein of open government issues in the United States:
    Highlighting the difference between rhetoric and actions is a crucial role for civil society and independent media in any open government context. To the extent you do that here, I applaud your actions.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Alex. It’s going to take me a day or two to respond unfortunately, but I do hope to.

  4. Tom,
    Just in passing, you might like to note this continuing attempt to document the wide range of things that people try to equate with ‘open government’:

  5. Alex,
    Who funds all this stuff?
    You and I both know that it is the Soros Foundations (Open Society Institute) (where I worked for many years as an independent contractor), Sunlight Foundation, and a few others. They all have a “progressive” ideology and an agenda they are pushing, and a very political one. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
    They strangely pick governments like the goverment of…Moldova…a post-Soviet state with communist government and problems like all post-Soviet states simply because of some chance connection or something, and nobody asks whether this is real. They pick Canada, which is an open society, but which as has been pointed out, is closed on rather a lot of important political topics.
    You hyperventilate about “lots of different voices in this space” in true geeky jargonistic fashion, but you fail to see that you are all singing from the same anodyne self-serving songsheet. My God, look at the session topics on the board at the twee Transparency Camp. All about the tech, all about itself, not about real stuff.
    As I’ve pointed out, sites like Govtrack and various Pop Vox type sites actually put interfaces and intermediaries in between you and your elected representatives, and actually skew mainly to the left and to one party, inevitably, because of the “tyranny of who shows up” — the networks that populate them run in one direction. Direct democracy is not liberal democracy.
    Instead of grappling with the very salient point of lack of *content* in all those gov 2.0 stuff, which Whimsley points out, you keep reading out of its phonebook and reciting all its statistics.
    As for implying that “rate my doctor” sort of sites are actually beneficial to the public, you seem entirely uncritical and unaware of the way in which these sites get gamed and griefed — like all geeky things get gamed and griefed, Alex. That’s why we don’t need the gamerz culture ported from Silicon Valley into our politics. It’s not helpful. It’s destructive.
    Again, I reiterate my demands of the previous post. Why has there never been FIRST a parliamentary or Congressional or city council hearing on your programs BEFORE they are implemented? Why are they just imposed, by fiat, revolutionary style? What are their budgets? What are the salaries? What are the real costs of open source programming?
    That gov 2.0 is good for Big IT seems indisputable, and that’s why you fight for it so hard. But Silicon Valley is not good for the country or the world. It supplies very few jobs. It avoids taxes. it destroys other people’s industries and livelihoods.

  6. Catherine —
    “All this stuff” is a big tent to pitch. While Open Society and Omidyar are clearly a source of funding for some organizations, they are far from the only sources of funding for online politics or government, as sites like show.
    There are open data and/or open government initiatives (from government) and civil society efforts (from citizens) in dozens of countries now, which are variously funded by government, venture capitalists, NGOs or bootstrapped by individuals.
    I talked with people from all around the world in Brasilia — those are the “many voices” I refer to — and see people all around the world demanding more transparency from their governments.
    3rd party open government platforms are populated by by government data and citizen commentary. See:
    They also list the ways that citizens can connect directly to their representatives online, including congressional websites or email. There are many conservatives online, whose interest drives sites like YouCut (in Congress) or whose opposition to SOPA was communicated to Representatives in the House via email, Twitter and phone calls in January.
    I did not refer to “Rate My Doctor” sites; I referenced services driven by open health data, collected by government. If you would like to make a case for why releasing hospital, insurance or physician quality data to the public is negative, there is a rulemaking process at HHS to participate in.
    Similarly, there are venues to question both IT procurement policy and open data initiatives. For instance, NYC’s council passed an open data law recently.
    Clearly, you are passionate about your beliefs and have strong feelings about Silicon Valley. Given that there was a democratic process in NYC that specifically included elected officials, it is untrue to say that there was no hearing.
    That reality casts serious doubt upon your accusations of programs “imposed, by fiat, revolutionary style,” just as a similar council meeting and law in San Francisco does.
    If you or any other New York City citizens wish to participate in the next step of open data policy, there will be a public forum this month:

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