The mythical open data divide

There’s been some interesting negative reactions to open data lately. I’m all for skepticism, but skepticism should be backed up with facts. For instance, when Michael Gurstein talks about the digital divide he refers to concrete examples of this coming true — although I disagree with some of his analysis (more on that in my book). Andrea Di Maio’s critique of open government data, on the other hand, is too vague to be instructive.

I readily admit that “open government” and “open data” is vague already. Justin Grimes, Harlan Yu, and I held a panel at Transparency Camp a few weeks back about how vague the terms are and how that can lead to trouble when we aren’t clear about what we mean. Di Maio runs right into this problem, placing the burden of a successful open data movement on “mythical ‘application developers'” (sorry, I don’t exist?). Transparency is only one of a dozen or more reasons why open government data is a good thing, and these reasons cannot all be judged by the same rubric.

Focusing on open data for transparency, Di Maio argues that “[t]he more the data, . . . the more specialized are the skills and resources required to process that data,” or in other words that open data can actually exacerbate a digital divide rather than close it. I’ll be one of the first to say that open data doesn’t necessarily mean better government (see the link to my book above), but Di Maio’s statement that I quoted can easily seen to be simply wrong.

One has to evaluate open gov data with everything else held equal. in other words, if there is open government data in the hypothetical, the comparison to make is to another world where the same government processes exist — they’re just not published in a machine-processable format. Now, you tell me, which world requires more skill to understand the data? Clearly the second, because every skill you need in the open-data-enabled world you need in the open-data-denied world, but you *also* need some other skills just to get the information in the second world.

There are certainly unintended consequences of open data. In my book I discuss two cases where legislative data affected the behaviors of the legislators in a way that’s probably not good. But let’s stay on fact and, for that matter, on logic.