Challenges of open data: misinterpretation

The following post is an excerpt from my thesis entitled Linked open data for public sector information.
Another argument pointing at the potential risks in disclosure of public data was presented by Lawrence Lessig in an article titled Against transparency [1], in which he draws attention to adverse effects of misinterpretation of public data. He highlights the issues that arise when monopoly on interpretation is removed and members of the public are provided with raw, uninterpreted data [2, p. 2]. Disintermediation causes decontextualization of public sector data that may lead to highly divergent interpretations of the same data [3]. Such change may be perceived as a loss of control the civil servants used to have. Instead of an “official” interpretation of open data this would potentially lead to a plurality “competing” and possibly conflicting interpretations, some of which may be driven by malicious interests.
Lessig claims, paying respect to the alleged shortening attention spans of members of the public, that it is easier to come up with an incorrect judgement based on public data than one that is based on solid understanding [1]. The ability to correctly interpret data is largely prevalent only among people with suffiecient expertise and data literacy skills. Moreover, Archon Fung and David Weil argue that the way open data is disclosed is conducive to pessimistic view of the public sector. They claim that “the systems of open government that we’re building - structures that facilitate citizens’ social and political judgments - are much more disposed to seeing the glass of government as half or even one-quarter empty, rather than mostly full” [4, p. 107]. Such conditions may also make users of data susceptible to apophenia, a phenomenon of seeing patterns that actually do not exist [5, p. 2]. In fact, Lessig writes, encountered with the vast amounts of available public data, ignorance is a rational investment of attention [1]. Without a significant time investment and data literacy skills people will usually come to shallow and premature conclusions based on their examination of public data. Unfounded conclusions may be quickly adopted and spread by the media, which may cause significant harm of reputation of public sector bodies, civil servants, or politicians, until these assertions are re-examined and proven to be false. For example, unverified oversimplifications may be yielded from public data to support political campaigns. Open data can be misused for skewed interpretations supporting political actions, casting suspicion on public image of politicians that are the target of discreditation campaigns.
Misinterpretations may increase distrust in the public sector. Thus, Lessig makes the case for disclosing a limited amounts of public data prone to misinterpretation [Ibid.]. Even though, he is not completely opposing the transparency initiatives, he warns that careful considerations should be given when releasing sensitive information that may be misused for defamation.
Unrestricted access to communication channels provided by new media gives strong voice to all competing interpretations, unhindered by the filtering mechanisms of traditional publishing. This state of affairs results in unfounded claims and rumours to amplify and spread with an impact that was previously impossible to achieve, causing harm to personal reputations and the public image of government. Fortunately, the self-repairing properties of communication networks eventually lead to the rebuttal of misinformation. The openness of public data thus brings not only a greater control of the public sector, but indirectly also a better control of unproven claims.


  1. LESSIG, Lawrence. Against transparency: the perils of openness in government. The New Republic [online]. October 9th, 2009 [cit. 2012-03-29]. Available from WWW: http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/against-transparency
  2. DAVIES, Tim. Open data, democracy and public sector reform: a look at open government data use from data.gov.uk [online]. Based on an MSc Dissertation submitted for examination in Social Science of the Internet, University of Oxford. August 2010 [cit. 2012-03-09]. Available from WWW: http://www.opendataimpacts.net/report/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/How-is-open-government-data-being-used-in-practice.pdf
  3. 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/
  4. LATHROP, Daniel; RUMA, Laurel (eds.). Open government: collaboration, transparency, and participation in practice. Sebastopol: O'Reilly, 2010. ISBN 978-0-596-80435-0.
  5. 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

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