When Openness is Unfreedom (alternatively, when data is unfreedom) – Part II
This evening, Rasagy raised a question on twitter about whether the effort of a developer to make the database of the Indian railways downloadable is ‘official’ or not? As Rasagy later explained, the downloadable database is a list of trains, stations and the railway timetable. This list has has been made available in various downloadable formats (such as .csv, .pdf, etc) to encourage developers/interested persons to make web/mobile based applications. Rasagy’s question was more in the nature of checking the legality of the act of putting this information/database on another website when it is explicitly copyright of the Indian Railways (as declared on their website). He argued that cities such as New York and some countries across the world have made this information ‘open’, meaning available to the ‘public’. Hence, it is unreasonable for this government entity i.e., the Indian railways, to be ‘closed’ about reuse of this information by private entities and individuals.
My response to Rasagy was that I was not aware of the legality of this person’s act who has made the railway information available in multiple downloadable formats. However, my ears perked up (as did the antennae on my head) when I heard the term ‘open’ and the argument that other countries around the world have made similar information ‘open’ to the ‘public’. I am going to try and open up the notion of ‘open’ and ‘openness’ in this post and tackle the issue of ‘rationality’ of data in the next post of this series.
At the outset, it is worth pointing out that there are different arrangements and systems under which government data is made open for different publics in different parts of the world. In countries such as the UK, different government departments have different licensing arrangements and contracts under which they provide (including selling) their data to private entities for reuse and interpretation. These private entities, in turn, under those specific licensing arrangements, can reuse/repurpose the data for further commercial and ‘public’ uses.
At the same time, across the world, different government departments have different interests and stakes in ‘opening’ up their data. Here, ‘opening’ can mean multiple things including publishing the data on websites, sharing it with private parties for reuse, interpretation, developing visualization or applications, and/or the departments themselves making the data available through multiple avenues including publications, websites, notice boards, under Right to Information/Freedom of Information legislations, service delivery systems, etc.
In perhaps another time, open and openness could have involved multiple meanings and manifestations. In the present, it appears that the onset and pervasiveness of digital technologies has led to information, data, openness and access as being associated primarily (and only) with the Internet and mobile phones. Further, those who are participating and active in the advocacy for open government data are mainly donor organizations, NGOs, think tanks, activists and developers, most of who hold narrow views about government, politics and empowerment and simultaneously benign views about data, openness and access (I elaborate on this further down in this post). These narrow and benign views and the strong agenda of empowerment and change leads them to advocate openness of government data in terms of (presumably) wide accessibility through the web and mobile phones, and reuse of data through web and mobile based applications.
Almost across the board, the government is believed to be the storehouse of information and data which ‘ought’ to be made ‘public’. Government personnel and departments, since pre- and colonial times, have been maintaining files, records, statistics, plans, maps, classificatory systems, etc which have currently acquired value and meaning as ‘government data’. It is also believed that governments in India have been hoarding this data and are not forthcoming about sharing it with the ‘public’. This government held information (fashionably known and practiced as (rational) data) is believed to be of immense value for purposes of planning for infrastructure and allocation of resources for cities, villages and districts. Hence the advocacy for opening it. At the same time, it is recognized that government personnel and departments ‘exploit’ citizens by not sharing important information with them and (mis)use the information either by making arbitrary decisions that negatively impact people, or to extract bribes from citizens. Following from here, ‘opening’ up information is but a benign act, one that is (presumably) universally desirable.
The problem with blanket advocacy for openness of all government data and the fashioning of ‘openness’ as universally desirable and beneficial stems from this narrow understanding of government and data held by governments. Firstly, governments rarely function like the ideal-type Weberian notion where bureaucracy is rational, orderly and acts in accordance with laws. Government personnel’s functioning is shaped by their own social and political positioning in state and society, their rationalities and belief systems, the political contexts of their departments, and the politico-socio-economic value of the resource they are governing/distributing. Government personnel’s functioning is further shaped by the legacies of their departments and the personnel who worked there earlier. Each of these, and a host of other historical and contextual factors, strongly shape the manner in which government employees, in different departments, maintain files, classification systems, records, and a host of other documents and information. Blanket ‘publishing’ and ‘opening’ of this information and ‘data’ completely overlooks the rationalities, history and politics underlying certain forms of information. In the absence of a nuanced understanding of why certain things were classified, documented and/or maintained in particular ways, blanket openness and publishing of information leads to narrow/particularistic interpretations of data.
Secondly, data and information are historical, social and political. There are multiple, parallel and diverse historical trajectories that have shaped ‘data’ in its current form. At the same time, government regimes and laws have, from time to time, dictated how information must be classified, documented and held. Government personnel have either conformed to these laws in letter and spirit or have documented information based on vernacular interpretations of these laws and policies. In this respect, information archiving, management and publication are strongly political. Also,undeniably and nearly universally, government departments and agents acquire power by holding and circulating information that is of value to people. When information is ‘opened’, it does not necessarily mean that the power of these institutions and agents will automatically be reduced. Rather, given the intricate and intertwined nature of government institutions and hierarchies, openness of someone can mean increased power for other competing agencies/agents. In these respects then, information/data are highly political, even though certain ‘datasets’ may seemingly appear to be harmless were they to be opened. Finally, information is social in that government officials at different levels and diverse citizen groups share various kinds of relationships through exchange, circulation and reproduction of various kinds of information. The processes of exchange, circulation and reproduction in turn create various channels and systems of trust, distrust, responsiveness (and the lack of it) and precedents. At the same time, the exchange, circulation and reproduction of information gives numerous lives to the same set of information, making its meanings multiple, diverse and amenable to be mobilized by different groups of people, at different times.
The primary issue with ‘publishing’ and making information ‘open’ is that openness, in particular ways through particular channels, and publication (by putting it on a website, database or paper) changes the perception about the information/data. The information/data acquires the status of evidence or fact. This, in turn, re-shapes the relationship between governments and citizens in that advocacy for openness and citizens’ own negative perceptions about governments leads them to use this data (now evidence and fact) in confrontational ways to hold governments answerable and accountable. Such confrontational encounters with government institutions and personnel are not necessarily productive in making them responsive. Rather, government agencies and officials, especially those at the frontline with who citizens interact on an everyday basis, are helpless in the face of this open data and the fact of their own lack of resources and institutional ability to respond to people’s needs.
Secondly, publishing and opening of data does not take place in isolation, especially if our demand is that governments must make data open and available. Opening of data requires that information from different departments (or even the same department) be collated, organized and published in a certain way. This itself involves repurposing data documented differently in the past to be re-documented and published in particular ways in the present. Further, depending on the nature of the information, its value to certain quarters of the government, and the legalities which have governed its documentation in the past, opening up the information would involve passage of new laws and reshuffling of hierarchy and authority within/across the government to govern (aka control) the ‘open’ ‘publication’ of information.
Thus, the belief that openness of information/data will make governments transparent and will reduce their power is but a rather short-sighted approach of open data advocacy. If information is indeed power (and power underlies the documentation and maintenance of information), then openness will lead to a redistribution (if not aggravation) of power and dynamics within the government and in the relationships between citizens and the state. Further, whether government held information is opened by the state or by private entities, openness involves re-shaping the legal and political architecture surrounding the information/data and governing the relationships between citizens and state. This being the case then, we seriously need to ask whether we are allowing more government into our lives by opening up government information/data in particular ways. I hope to discuss this issue in greater detail in subsequent posts, citing the instances of opening up particular kinds of information.
Finally, the notion of openness of information is strongly associated with beliefs about empowerment and change. It is believed that once information is made available, in universal and accessible formats, platforms and channels, then people become aware of their rights, powers, laws and are better able to hold their governments accountable. It is indeed true that knowledge of something puts you in a better position to bargain with the opposite party. It is therefore also true that availability of information – in whatever form – enables different citizen groups to leverage on their current resources, position and abilities to negotiate better with governments. Availability of information is therefore the first step, though not the only one in negotiating with governments. What matters from hereon is ‘how’ negotiation, interaction, confrontation or discussion takes place. This process is what leads to cultivation of precedents, responsiveness and relationships between citizens and the state. Blanket open availability of information, especially in an atmosphere where there is deep distrust of governments, does not necessarily lead to better negotiation. At the same time, we also need to step back and reflect on what constitutes empowerment in real life. The very act of being able to step beyond one’s confines, interact with a government authority/agency, get work done, are some of the experiences where different people experience different levels of empowerment, change and a sense of personal capacity. What we therefore need is not simply ‘open data’, but more avenues where citizens and state can interact with each other and develop more lasting systems of trust and responsiveness, as well as systems where citizens can directly negotiate with each other without requiring the state’s interventions each time.
This is not the end of the post, but more a provocation to mull over the notions of data, empowerment, access, responsiveness and state-citizen relationships. It must also be noted that countries have different laws pertaining to openness of information based on each individual country’s historical trajectory which in turn has shaped its relationship with laws, contracts and written rules. In India, we do not yet have laws pertaining to the copyright of information released under RTI. Neither are we at a stage where certain European countries and America currently have laws and policies governing the reuse and commercial use of government data. In this respect, our tryst and trajectory with government data is contingent on how we understand, advocate and shape the ecology of state-citizen interactions and the sociality and politics of information. In the absence of written laws, contracts and arrangements, we have the unique opportunity to be able to craft different avenues and options which lead to diverse opportunities for tactics, negotiations as well as different degrees of responsiveness from governments.
Interestingly, in the twitter exchange which led to this blog post, Rasagy mentioned: “”Open” = Available for everyone to read and use? (Or much more than that?)” I leave you with this question (and there is no single, overarching answer here …)
[This blog post is also dedicated to Yuvi who 'informed' me on how to over my current writer's block ... ... ...]