Open data in a democratic context

This post is the second half of my thoughts from the MadwData event in Sheffield recently (first half here where I talk about system change) in which I actually talk about open data! The point I am trying to make is that open data can never be seen as an end in its self so in shaping its use you need to consider the context in which you are using it and want to use it.

At the round table session I ran we dug a it deeper into that context and into the fact that all of this is happening within the framing of a democratic system.. In a democratically governed system – such as local government – service delivery and the democratic process which shape them are inextricably linked.

As we adopt methods like co-design and aspire to have greater levels of co-production with citizens you have to see democratic engagement as part of a spectrum of engagement which now is as likely to start with a co-design process as it is to start with a consultation or more conventional community engagement project. The question I would ask is whether we can, or indeed should, involve people in the design and delivery of services without also involving them more successfully in the democratic process which shapes those services?

This is not the first time I have asked this question!

My interest is in the conditions that are needed for good democracy to flourish in the 21st century because I think its a prerequisite for good services. This led me to introduce the idea of the democracy stack which I have described here.

Open data can often be talked about as a moral good – the virtual equivalent of good governance of our physical environment and the resources we share. We share data in an attempt to avoid the tragedy of the commons.

It can also be considered as a technical solution to the complexity of systems integration – open systems can work together more easily and it can also be argued allow for greater innovation by opening up opportunities to a wider group of people to collaborate on solutions.

My main argument for open data is its ability to level the power in the democratic relationship by moving towards a situation where everyone in the discussion has access to the same set of information and as a result are able to create better shared understanding and solutions. More importantly openness and transparency builds trust – something which is hugely lacking in our democratic system.

Its not enough just to make sure that democratic consultations are information rich. Communicating big data is a big problem in its own right as few of us have the statistical or research literacies to engage with it directly and this means that we are at the mercy of the skills and possible biases of the people who present it. The increasing use of infographics and more visual methods of communicating data really help make data accessible but we have a long way to go before those literacies are present at such a level as to take that curational power away from the person presenting the data – and I think you can argue that that may never happen as few of us what to become statisticians (no offence).

Open data can compensate for our lack of data literacy and build trust in the democratic process not just because it turns us all into armchair auditors but because it provides the opportunity for stakeholders to have confidence that they are working from the same basis as they sit down to find a solution to a problem – it levels the playing field.

However considerable ingenuity is needed in order to bridge the gap between the complexity of the data and presentation of something that is genuinely useful in debate. This is the challenge I want people working with open data to have in their minds rather than simply getting lost in the twists and turns of getting it work – to stay focused on one of the end goals which is to create an understanding of place that means that all kinds of people can sit down together and make it better. Open data misses the point if it simply creates a new elite around the information made up of people who can actually make sense of it.

Going back to the point about open data in the design of services I think this can be applied in two main ways:

  •  as a way of ensuring that everyone is equally informed when you start to design the process
  • as a way of embedding performance and progress data in the output of that process in a way which enables every one to participate in the process of continuous improvement and innovation. Don’t keep your performance metrics to yourself.

I think the shared challenge for democratic engagement and service design is how to present the data in such a way that a wide range of people can make sense of it.

Service design is a continual process within a democratic system – especially when you are building a digital service. This means the needs of coding, democratic engagement and performance management and improvement need to be addressed together. Open data can help do that by building trust in the process and creating an environment where everyone is able to contribute as long as those of you that have the expertise to work with this data are constantly focused on the need to make it accessible to everyone else.

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