For the casual observer, openness and transparency are terms that can conjure up confusion in recent times. On the one hand, governments at all levels are striving to develop open data and open government strategies, lauding the benefits of information sharing and crowd-sourced innovation. Yet on the other hand, spending and corruption scandals seemingly widen, often stemming from engrained secrecy and inward and confined decision-making.
Moreover, the government of Canada – a recent convert to open data (following the pioneering efforts of municipalities over the past several years) – has struggled mightily of late with information security, paradoxically developing a new secret network to better protect its own data flows deemed sensitive for one reason or another. Rocked by the Snowden affair, the Obama administration faces similar tensions and contradictions as the nexus between metadata, privacy and security grows ever-more tenuous and complex in all democratic countries.
Locally, Washington, D.C.’s local government would pioneer in 2009 what is believed to be the world’s first “apps for democracy” contest. Generating more than $2 million of value for the city at a mere cost of $50,000, it is also notable that the person responsible for the initiative, Vivek Kundra, would subsequently become the federal Chief Technology Officer under President Obama. Yet despite accolades from many quarters, Kundra’s successor in the District of Columbia openly expressed scepticism about the usefulness of such an approach, suggesting that while many apps were “cool,” they did little to facilitate sustainable improvement for communities.
Such debates further underscore the complexities of open data and where it might lead. While open data may be viewed by some inside and outside government as a technically-focused and largely incremental project based upon information formatting and accessibility (with the degree of openness subject to a myriad of security and confidentiality provisions), such an approach greatly limits its potential. Indeed, the growing ubiquity of mobile and smart devices, the advent of open source operating systems and social media platforms, and the growing commitment by governments themselves to expansive public engagement objectives, all suggest a widening scope.
Yet, what will incentivize the typical citizen to access open data and to partake in collective efforts to create public value? It is here where our digital culture may well fall short, emphasizing individualized service and convenience at the expense of civic responsibility and community-mindedness. For one American academic, this “citizenship deficit” erodes democratic legitimacy and renders our politics more polarized and less discursive. For other observers in Europe, notions of the digital divide are giving rise to new “data divides.”
The politics and practicalities of data privacy often bring further confusion. While privacy advocates call for greater protection and a culture of data activism among Internet users themselves, the networked ethos of online communities and commercialization fuels speed and sharing, often with little understanding of the ramifications of doing so. Differences between consumerism and citizenship are subtle yet profoundly important, while increasingly blurred and overlooked.
A key conundrum provincially and federally, within the Westminster confines of parliamentary democracy, is that open data is being hatched mainly from within the executive branch, whereas the legislative branch watches and withers. In devising genuine democratic openness, politicians and their parties must do more than post expenses online: they must become partners and advocates for renewal. A lesson of open source technology, however, is that systemic change demands an informed and engaged civil society, disgruntled with the status quo but also determined to act anew.
Most often, such actions are highly localized, even in a virtual world, giving rise to the purpose and meaning of smarter and more intelligent communities. And in Canada it bears noting that we see communities both large and small embracing open data and other forms of online experimentation such as participatory budgeting. It is often within small but connected communities where a virtuous cycle of online and in-person identities and actions can deepen and impact decision-making most directly.
How, then, do we reconcile traditional notions of top-down political federalism and national leadership with this bottom-up approach to community engagement and democratic renewal? Shifting from open data to open democracy is likely to be an uneven, diverse, and at times messy affair. Better this way than attempting to ordain top-down change in a centralized and standardized manner.
Jeffrey Roy’s new book, From Machinery to Mobility: Government and Democracy in a Participative Age, is available from Springer Publications.