Impacts of open data: transparency

The following post is an excerpt from my thesis entitled Linked open data for public sector information.
Transparency of the public sector reflects the ability of the public to see what is going on. David Weinberger declares that transparency is the new objectivity [1], a change that he claims to stem from the transformation of the currect knowledge ecosystem to one that is inherently network-based. Transparency replaces the role of the long-discredited objectivity in that aspects that it is used as a source of veracity and reliability [2].
Transparency serves for fraud prevention. It puts the public sector under a peer pressure based on the fact that anybody can inspect the its public proceedings. The peer supervision makes it more difficult for civil servants to profit from the control they have and abuse of the powers vested in them. By increasing the risks of exposure of venal activities, it lowers the systemic corruption [3, p. 9]. In effect, members of the public may hold civil servants accountable for corruption, illegal takeover of subsidies, or plain budgetary waste [4, p. 80].
An illustrative example of the self-regulating effects of transparency was presented in [5, p. 110]. In 1997, restaurants in the Los Angeles county were ordered to post highly visible letter grades on their front windows. The grades (A, B, C) were based on the results of County Department of Health Services inspections probing hygiene maintenance in the restaurants. The ready availability of evidence on insanitary practices in food handling made it easier for people to make better choices about restaurants and helped them to avoid restaurants that were deemed unsafe to eat at. The introduction of this policy proved to have a significant impact both on the restaurants and their customers. Revenues at C-grade restaurants dropped, while those of A-grade restaurants increased, leading over time to a growth of the number of cleanly restaurants and a steep decline of the poorly performing ones. The policy also improved health conditions of the restaurants’ customers, with a decrease of hospitalizations caused by food-borne illnesses from 20 % to 13 %. Transparency has an ambiguous impact on trust in the public sector. While there is a positive impression of stronger control over the public sector, at the same time more failures are identified, which chips away at the trust in public affairs. Furthermore, transparency makes citizens aware of how vulnerable to manipulation the public sector data is.
Open data shapes the reality it measures [6, p. 3]. When communicating, the sender conveying information modifies its content based on the perceived context of communication. Evaluation of the way of communication, the expected audience, and other circumstances factored into the communication context impacts what messages are sent. Open data establishes a new context with a wider and less defined range of potential recipients and a different set of expectations about the effect of communicated data. Such re-contextualization may affect what gets released and in what form. Data may be distorted in a direction so that it supports only the interpretations data producers expect [7]. As a result, some data may end up withheld from the public, while other data may turn out to be misrepresenting of the phenomena it bears witness to. At the same time, the change brought about by the obligation to disclose data may have positive consequences by forcing public bodies “to rethink, reorganize and streamline their delivery before going online” [8, p. 448].
As the control is ultimately in the hands of civil servants, data disclosure may be shaped as required by various interest groups, including politicians or lobbyists. It illuminates the fact that there is no direct causation between open data and open government. “A government can be an ‘open government,’ in the sense of being transparent, even if it does not embrace new technology” [9, p. 2]. Only politically important and sensitive disclosures take government further on its way to open government. “A government can provide ‘open data’ on politically neutral topics even as it remains deeply opaque and unaccountable” [Ibid., p. 2]. This reflects what Ellen Miller from the Sunlight Foundation calls the danger of a mere “transparency theater”. This is nothing new in the politics. For instance, questions that politicians get asked may be moderated to include only those that are not sensitive and do not require the interviewee to disclose any delicate facts.
It also indicates that there is a limit to transparency, a limit that Joshua Tauberer entitled the “Wonderlich Transparency Paradox” [10]. It is named after John Wonderlich from the Sunlight Foundation that once wrote that “How ever far back in the process you require public scrutiny, the real negotiations [...] will continue fervently to exactly that point” [11]. Some parts of the processes in the public sector are exempted from disclosure to provide a “space to think” [4, p. 74]. However, this paradox shows that no matter how thourough and deep the transparency of the public sector is, the real decision-making processes will always have a chance to elude what is recorded and exposed for public scrutiny.
Everything may be abused and transparency is no different. For example, releasing data about how well are civil servants paid may be used to identify targets for bribery. Disclosing salaries of politicians helps lobbyists to find a low-paid politician who is an easier target for corruption. A difficult question is also to ask whether terrorist watch list should be made open [5, p. 4].
These examples showcase the unintended consequences of opening data. What these concerns illustrate is that transparency is obviously not a panacea and it would be naïve to think it is. Open data is not an end to itself and transparency by itself is an input, not an output [12].


  1. WEINBERGER, David. Too big to know. New York (NY): Basic Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0-465-02142-0.
  2. WEINBERGER, David. Transparency is the new objectivity [online]. July 19th, 2009 [cit. 2012-04-25]. Available from WWW: http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2009/07/19/transparency-is-the-new-objectivity/
  3. BERLINER, Daniel. The political origins of transparency. 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- 29]. Also available from WWW: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1899791
  4. Beyond access: open government data & the right to (re)use public information [online]. Access Info Europe, Open Knowledge Foundation, January 7th, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-15]. Available from WWW: http://www.access-info.org/documents/Access_Docs/Advancing/Beyond_Access_7_January_2011_web.pdf
  5. LATHROP, Daniel; RUMA, Laurel (eds.). Open government: collaboration, transparency, and participation in practice.
    Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2010. ISBN 978-0-596-80435-0.
  6. BOYD, Danah; CRAWFORD, Kate. Six provocations for big data. In Proceedings of A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, 21 — 24 September 2011, University of Oxford. Oxford (UK): Oxford University, 2011. Also available from WWW: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1926431
  7. KAPLAN, Daniel. Open public data: then what? Part 1 [online]. January 28th, 2011 [cit. 2012-04-10]. Available from WWW: http://blog.okfn.org/2011/01/28/open-public-data-then-what-part-1/
  8. HAZLETT, Shirley-Ann; HILL, Frances. E-government: the realities of using IT to transform the public sector. Managing Quality Service. 2003, vol. 13, iss. 6, p. 445 — 452. ISSN 0960-4529. DOI 10.1108/09604520310506504.
  9. YU, Harlan; ROBINSON, David G. The new ambiguity of “open government” [online]. Princeton CITP / Yale ISP Working Paper. Draft of February 28th, 2012. Available from WWW: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2012489
  10. 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/
  11. WONDERLICH, John. Pelosi reverses on 72 hour promises? In Open House Project [online]. November 7th, 2009 [cit. 2012-04-19]. Available from WWW: http://groups.google.com/group/openhouseproject/msg/94060a876083d86a
  12. 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

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