Guest post by David Banisar, Article 19

This week in New York at the UN General Assembly meetings on the future of the Millennium Development Goals, the call for “revolution” has been heard throughout the rooms and halls of the United Nations and in the cafés, hotels, and bars nearby. Fortunately for the world leaders there, the focus was on the “data revolution” rather than the more bloody kind.

The “data revolution” is widely championed by governments, UN bodies, foundations and civil society groups as means to solve the problems not met by the MDGs, ensuring that governments provide the assistance needed by their citizens.  With enough good data, disadvantaged groups can be identified and effectively targeted, services are improved, needs can be met.  Open data is seen as the linchpin of this.

However, just as the excitement over “E-government” in the late 1990s was seen as a means to fundamentally change the relationship between citizens and governments, it is important to recognize that governments providing data through voluntary measures is not enough.

First, it needs to operate within a framework of law and regulation that ensures that it is collected, and made public in a timely, accurate and useful form. Otherwise, it is in danger of just being propaganda, subject to manipulation.  As has been found in the evaluations of the success of the MDGs, sensitive information is withheld or selectively collected and released in many countries.

Most of the countries where open data has been successful, there also exists a legal right to demand information which keeps bodies honest.  In Kenya, which has been championing their open data portal while going slowly on adopting a law on freedom of information, a recent review found that the portal was stagnating also. In part, the problem was that in the absence of laws mandating openness, there remains a culture of secrecy and fear of releasing information.

Further, access to data is not enough to understand and affect the decision-making process.  Legal rights to all information held by governments – right to information laws- is essential to tell the “why”. Data can reveal patterns. RTI reveals how policy is made – the secret meetings, the dodgy contracts, the dubious emails and other materials. These are essential elements for oversight and accountability. Showing that a community was denied a new hospital because of political reasons is as important for change as recognizing that they are under-served.

There is a danger that many governments are cynically attempting to undermine open government, which ensures accountability, by promoting open data as an equal alternative. The UK government has laudably been developing and extending its data.gov.uk portal which makes much spending data available. But at the same time, the government has been pushing for amendments to the Freedom of Information Act which would seriously limit the ability of the public to understand how and why decisions are made.

So for open data to be truly effective, there needs to be a right to information enshrined in law that requires that information is made available in a timely, reliable format that people want, not just want the government body wants released. From this open data can flourish and the revolution can start chopping heads.

David Banisar is Senior Legal Counsel for ARTICLE 19, the global campaign for free expression and information and leads the organisations’ efforts on transparency and development.