Digital Life

This Week’s Topic: Unzip Your Government

Open and closed
Open and closed by alanak on flickr (by-nc-sa)
Solana Larsen
Written by Solana Larsen

What’s Going On?

Do you know what your government is doing with your tax money? It may surprise you just how many countries and cities are committed to becoming more transparent by among other things opening up government data.

This year an International Open Data Charter was drafted that lists six principles for how data should be released. Around 20 governments have adopted it already, and a broad coalition is pushing for more to come onboard.

Unless you know what they are doing, how can you hold them accountable?
With the rise of the Web, people everywhere now expect their governments to communicate openly online. But how much is enough?

Citizens want access to the inner workings of government and information about public services. When governments further open up data (with proper privacy safeguards) about health, crime, environment, budgets, land ownership and so on, it becomes a powerful tool for individuals, civil society, business and government itself. Especially when those datasets are openly licensed, so the numbers can be searched, visualised, downloaded, used and cross referenced by anyone.

How could you eradicate poverty, for instance, if you don’t know where the poorest people live? Or effectively stamp out corruption, if you don’t know which public contracts were awarded to whom?

Who’s Doing Something?

Locally and regionally, there are countless examples of open government data initiatives. In Uruguay, citizens can now see the performance ratings of health care providers. In Nepal, an Aid Management Platform was launched to monitor aid and budget spending.

Journalists and researchers everywhere use open government data for in-depth investigations, for instance in this recent story on corruption in Myanmar’s jade trade. Last year, a Mexican think-tank uncovered 1,400 teachers with identical fake birthdays on the public payroll.

At the international level, governments are pushed by organisations like the Sunlight Foundation, Open Data Institute, the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Web Foundation. The new Open Data Charter builds on years of effort by the Open Government Partnership, the G8 group of countries, a United Nations working group, and other multilateral initiatives.

The drive for openness has also led to more global awareness that quality data is necessary for good governance. While critics question whether open government data makes a difference, proponents are eager to share examples, from ebola to bananas, where it helps.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest challenges after convincing officials, is training people and groups to actually use data, as the Web Foundation’s Open Data Lab is doing in Indonesia and the Philippines.

What Should I Do?

Even if you don’t trust your government, praise them for initiatives of openness since it is a first step. But don’t let them make empty promises.

Data alone won’t lead to change. Actively encourage journalists and other intermediaries to make use of open government data initiatives.

Intrigued? Want to do more with data yourself? Train yourself online. Download data-sets and seek for ‘hackathons’ and collaborators.

 Do you have ideas for developing your own projects? See if you are eligible for funding from Making All Voices Count or elsewhere.

About the author

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen is co-author of the cookbook "Recipes for a Digital Revolution". She writes a newsletter for Web We Want and helped create this website. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Solana is a Danish-Puerto Rican journalist and digital activist.

Leave a Comment