• Open data is about people, not just innovation

    Ana Brandusescu


Speed read

  • Open data empowers well-off, widening poverty gap and excluding certain groups

  • Marginalised people should take part in data-gathering and get training to use it

  • Governments need to invest in four areas to tackle inequality using open data

True change will come if we stop treating data as a techie bolt-on and reach marginalised groups, says Ana Brandusescu.
In the Philippines, ustadz — Islamic teachers — were struggling without enough resources to deliver quality education.
Although funds were available from local governments, who were required to publish their budgets, they made little effort to share this data with citizens or explain how to use it.
When E-NET, a local NGO, began educating the ustadz on how to use this data, they discovered a Special Education Fund for public schools — a fund no one had told them about — that could cover school uniforms and teacher salaries.
On the heels of that success the teachers expanded their use of open data, creating a coalition, the North Cotabato Federation of Madrasa Community Ustadz, which now uses open data to make recommendations not only on budgets, but also on policy priorities for community education.
We often think about open data as being technical or part of a country’s digital transformation. But really, open data is about people, their problems, and giving them the power to solve them.
Unfortunately, this example of Filipino teachers unlocking government budgets using data is still very rare.
Why aren’t we seeing open data used to address inequality more often? Why isn’t it resulting in greater participation from a wider spectrum of citizens?
Data is political
Data is power, and that makes it political.

“We must move beyond data about and for citizens, and actively promote data with and by citizens, if we are to realise open data’s potential to tackle rising inequality.”

Ana Brandusescu

When data is opened up to the public, citizens have the chance to reclaim their decision-making role. But this new power isn’t being dispersed equally throughout society.
In the latest edition of the Open Data Barometer, which analyses trends on the global impact of open data, my organisation, the Web Foundation, found that governments have tended to prioritise unlocking datasets for economic growth and innovation — objectives that are politically easier than empowering marginalised groups.
This year, Barometer findings reveal that less data is available and open in areas relevant to social policies — that can help reduce inequality — than for innovation.
On average, Barometer findings show the availability of data on key public services is declining. This includes a significant change for the worse in health and education: out of the 115 countries surveyed, only seven per cent of datasets are open for health, and eight per cent for education.
No internet means no data access
The result is that governments miss an opportunity to improve inclusion and equality. Instead, they reinforce existing divides by ignoring the needs of groups with lower income and less political power. This means that these groups are yet again excluded from the consultation and decision-making processes that open data creates.
It also adds to existing disadvantage. These groups frequently lack internet connectivity and the skills to access open data. They may also be less visible in the data itself.
The sexist data crisis’ is one example: women are less likely to be online than men; less likely to be consulted on the design of data policies and initiatives; under-represented among the ranks of data scientists; and often uncounted in official statistics.
As the digital revolution steams ahead, we need to avoid widening the gap that already exists by further marginalising the already marginalised and empowering the already empowered.
Open data could play a key role here — that is, if we open up data in consultation with the groups that are not usually consulted, instead of defaulting immediately to entrepreneurs and government departments. We must stop treating open data as a techie bolt-on when it should really be a transformation in decision-making and citizen participation.
Consult the poor
For open data to improve social outcomes and equality, governments need to invest in four areas.
The first area is better data collection and design so there is greater disaggregation by sex, income level and age, as well as new indicators that account for diversity in society. For this to be done sensitively, marginalised groups should be consulted when deciding which data to collect — and for what purposes.
Second is access to data, including low-cost internet access so that low-income and other marginalised groups aren’t locked out at the front door. A good example is the City of Chicago's technology plan for developing open data, civic innovation and high-speed broadband for under-served neighbourhoods.
The third area is about processes, such as sharing in offline formats or offering data literacy training, that enable marginalised groups to use data, particularly to participate in policy-making.
And finally, governments need to invest in responsible data policy. This is about practices that protect personal privacy and avoid unintended side effects, with governments becoming accountable for the impact of what data they collect and how.
Collection of more data about marginalised groups alone will not give these groups the power to act and increase their participation in policy making. We must move beyond data about and for citizens, and actively promote data with and by citizens, if we are to realise open data’s potential to tackle rising inequality.
Ana Brandusescu is digital citizenship research officer at the Web Foundation. She can be contacted on Twitter @anabmap.