Challenges of open data: data literacy

The following post is an excerpt from my thesis entitled Linked open data for public sector information.
Even though open data bridges the data divide between the public sector and members of the public, it might be introducing a new data divide that separates those with resources to make use of the data and those who do not. Despite the fact that open data virtually eliminates the cost of data acquisition, the cost of use remains “sufficiently high to compromise the political impact of open data” [1, p. 11].
An oft-cited quote attributed to Francis Bacon claims that “knowledge is power”. If data is a source of knowledge, then opening it up creates a shift in access to a source of power. However, equal access to data does not imply equal use, nor equal empowerment, as transforming data into power requires not only access. Letting aside the concerns of unequal access addressed by the agenda of the digital divide, while the principles of open data lead to the removal of barriers to access, they do not remove all barriers to use. In this respect, it is vitally important to distinguish between the “opportunity” and the actual “realization” of use of open data [2]. Even though everyone may have equal opportunities to access and use open data, only someone is able to achieve “effective use” [Ibid.]. In the light of this assertion, open data empowers only the already empowered; those that have access to technologies and computer skills that are necessary to make use of the data.
The belief in transformative potential of open data is based on optimistic assumptions about the citizens’ data literacy. The technocratic perspective with which open data principles are drafted takes high level of skills necessary for working with data for granted. Thus, the open data initiatives are in a way exclusive as they are limited mostly to technically inclined citizens [3, p. 268].
The minimalist role of the public sector, withdrawn into the background to serve as a platform, proceeds of the supposition that members of the society have all the necessary ingredients to make effective use of open government data, such as high level of information processing capabilities [4]. Even though ICT penetration and internet connectivity may be sufficient to access open data, it is not enough to make use of it. What is also needed are the abilities to process and interpret the data. However, open data released in a raw form may not be easily digestible without a substantial proficiency in data processing. Therefore, it should not be underestimated that users are required to possess technical expertise to process the data.
The bottom line is that access to data may in fact increase the asymmetry in society. If all interest groups have equal access to public sector information, then we can expect that the better organized and well-equipped groups to make better use of it [5]. The asymmetry may stem from the fact, that the interest groups that are able to take advantage of the newly released information will prosper at the expense of groups that cannot do that.
On the other hand, this type of unequality is in a sense natural. Such state of affairs should not be considered as a final one, but rather as a starting point. David Eaves compares the challenge of increasing data literacy to increasing literacy in libraries and reminds us that “we didn’t build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate” [6]. In the same way, we do not publish open data expecting everyone will be able to use it. The data are released since access is a necessary prerequisite for use. Direct access to data by the empowered, technically-skilled infomediaries may become a basis for an indirect access for many more [7]. Coming from this perspective, the most effective uses of open data can be thought of as those that let others make effective use of the data.


  1. MCCLEAN, Tom. Not with a bang but with a whimper: the politics of accountability and open data in the UK. In HAGOPIAN, Frances; HONIG, Bonnie (eds.). American Political Science Association Annual Meeting Papers, Seattle, Washington, 1 — 4 September 2011 [online]. Washington (DC): American Political Science Association, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-19]. Also available from WWW: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1899790
  2. GURSTEIN, Michael. Open data: empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone? First Monday [online]. February 7th, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-01], vol. 16, no. 2. Available from WWW: http://firstmonday.org/htb in/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3316/2764
  3. BERTOT, John C.; JAEGER, Paul T.; GRIMES, Justin M. Using ICTs to create a culture of transparency: e-government and social media as openness and anti-corruption tools for societies. Government Information Quarterly. July 2010, vol. 27, iss. 3, p. 264 — 271. DOI 10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.001.
  4. GIGLER, Bjorn-Soren; CUSTER, Samantha; RAHEMTULLA, Hanif. Realizing the vision of open government data: opportunities, challenges and pitfalls [online]. World Bank, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-11]. Available from WWW: http://www.scribd.com/WorldBankPublications/d/75642397-Realizing-the-Vision-of-Open-Government-Data-Long-Version-Opportunities-Challenges-and-Pitfalls
  5. SHIRKY, Clay. Open House thoughts, Open Senate direction. In Open House Project [online]. November 23rd, 2008 [cit. 2012-04-19]. Available from WWW: http://groups.google.com/group/openhouseproject/msg/53867cab80ed4be9
  6. EAVES, David. Learning from libraries: the literacy challenge of open data [online]. June 10th, 2010 [cit. 2012-04-11]. Available from WWW: http://eaves.ca/2010/06/10/learning-from-libraries-the-literacy-challenge-of-open-data/
  7. TAUBERER, Joshua. Open government data: principles for a transparent government and an engaged public [online]. 2012 [cit. 2012-03-09]. Available from WWW: http://opengovdata.io/

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