A diverse open data discourse?

[Summary: on the need for greater diversity in the open data discourse in 2014]
2014 is going to see a lot of Open Data conferences and events around the world, particularly in developing countries, where open data has become part of the donors discourse. And a lot of these events are likely to be packed full of anecdotes and examples of open data applications and websites drawn from the USA and Europe, and presenters whose main contributions to open data have been made in the leading cities of high-tech stable democracies with decades or centuries of systematic governance data collections and records. The stories they can tell are often inspiring – and can spark many ideas about how government could be done differently, or how citizens can use data to drive bottom-up change. But the stories they tell should not be taken as templates to transferred and applied in different countries without consideration of the vastly different contexts.
As the Open Data Barometer demonstrated, many developing countries don’t have consistently collected state datasets just waiting to be opened up, and may have much smaller technology communities to draw upon in mediating raw data into useful platforms and products. In the Open Data in Developing Countries research network we spent time in Cape Town a few weeks ago discussing the need to split apart the packaged definition of open data offered by most high-profile advocates, recognising that for much of the data in the South it may make sense to focus on just one or two of ‘Proactively Published’, ‘Machine readable’, and ‘Legal permissions to use’ in the first instance, working progressively towards increased openness of data, rather than treating open data as a binary all-or-nothing state. The importance of adapting open data ideas to local contexts has been a key theme throughout the emerging research findings: but it’s not one we often hear from conference platforms.
In the conferences next year then, we need to be hearing more voices from those who have been grappling with open data from African, Asian and Latin American perspectives, as well as those from all continents who have been exploring open data outside the capital cities and with grassroots groups. Shifting the practices of the state, of its interlocutors, of citizens and businesses to be ‘open by default’, and ensuring the net-gains that can bring are fairly distributed, is not a simple task – and its one that even leading advocates of open data have only taken the first steps towards. Where we are bringing examples across country contexts in presentations, we need to do more to distill and express the theories of change behind open data impacts, and to open that up so that different countries can work out how to fit the open data vision and agenda into their local political, technical and social realities. And we need to explore the different theories of change emerging across different sectors and countries to understand how the core idea of open data can be assembled in many different ways to bring about change. Getting more diverse voices onto the podium in 2014 is a good way to start that.

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