Is open public data a service or a right?

Source: Open Halton.

Is access to open public data a service, like education, or a right, like free speech?

Services are optional

Governments collect taxes and use the money to provide services to their citizens. Because tax revenue is finite, no government can provide all possible services to all people all of the time, so a government has to prioritize and plan carefully — when the next $50M is available, should the government spend it on education, healthcare, sanitation, or policing? Where is the greatest need? Where is the greatest return for the investment? What regions or constituencies have been under-served? How can the service be implemented on time and on budget?

Rights are mandatory

Rights, on the other hand, simply exist. The way people exercise their right to free speech can enhance society as a whole (e.g. Dr. Martin Luther King) or drag it down (e.g. Westboro Baptist Church), but the government’s and courts’ job is simply to protect and nurture the right, regardless of whether it’s used wisely or foolishly.

People, not their government, decide what rights to exercise, how, and when. There’s no cost-benefit analysis, no communications plan, no implementation schedule — just get out of the way and give us what’s ours.

Which one is open data?

Our challenge with open public data is to make it less like a service (government-led), and more like a right (people-led).  But how?

Access to information — another key component of transparency — works like a right. Government is forced to follow not its own priorities, but the priorities of the people demanding information. Open public data, on the other hand, feels like a service: once again, with limited time and money available, the government (or other public organization) is the one setting the priorities: Where is the greatest need?  Where is the greatest return for investment?  What regions or constituencies have been under-served? How can the service be implemented on time and on budget?

Two years ago, Charles Arthur wrote in an article in The Guardian that “data has gone from being jealously guarded and treated like gold reserves to be hoarded, to being a public asset for free use.”

Yet that asset continues to be available — when it is available at all — only at the pleasure of the government. Governments, however well intentioned, consider open data to be a service that they’re providing, rather than a right that they’re supporting. We all know what happens to services when money is tight — they get cut — so how can we ensure that open public data survives the next banking crisis or budget cuts?

Be careful what we ask for

There’s no obvious solution, but perhaps we can at least encourage governments to think of open public data a bit less like a service by asking less for the service-like bits often attached to it.

Open data is a big CSV or XML file, or an API. All the other things we think of together with “open data” — registries, fancy visualizations, reporting tools, web sites for interactive search and browsing, sponsored hackathons, etc. — aren’t open data, but just services offered around open data. It’s wonderful that governments sometimes offer those services, but if they think of them as an inseparable part of the open data they publish, and don’t publish until/unless they have all this in place, then open data will remain optional, thoroughly mired in the service world rather than the rights world.

All of these peripheral support services could be offered by a third party; the one thing that governments have, and everyone else doesn’t, is the data itself. We — citizens and stakeholders — need to avoid being distracted by these shiny extras, and simply demand our raw data as our right.

3 thoughts on “Is open public data a service or a right?

  1. Tim Davies says:

    Hey David,

    This post raises some really interesting issues – but I’m not sure the argument entirely works, nor that the conclusion is one I would agree with in it’s current form. Some musing below:

    Although rights generally have the quality of being something that, once possessed, can be demanded – and should only be balanced against other rights, not traded-off against other policy considerations, there is more than one kind of right.

    For example, freedom of expression can be a Human Right (to be universally defended) and a political right (enshrined in a particular constitution). Other rights (e.g. the right to return a faulty product) are a combination of legal rights and contractual rights.

    Many of the rights we hold with respect to the state (e.g. the right to vote ; to remove governments at an election; and to hold governments to account) are constitutional rights (written or unwritten). Other rights, like the right to information about what a government is doing, are to some extent procedural rights. That is, these are rights because they are important to help us sure the constitutional rights. If I cannot know what my government is going, I cannot hold it to account.

    I would suggest then that, in so far as it is a right, the right to data might be, in the modern age, a consequence of the right to information, which is in turn a consequence of the right to hold governments to account.

    That is, we need data to search, sift and analyse so we can understand what governments are doing – as documents alone cannot show us what is going on in ever-more-complex government systems.

    However, a right to data does not come in place of a right to information, it comes in addition to it. If we just ask governments to put out data, with no context and no tools to make sense of it, then only those with skills and power can effectively access the right to information. Third-parties may emerge, but the evidence suggests they may do emerge or become sustainable for all contexts and datasets.

    So – to serve the right to information – governments may need to go beyond just putting out the CSV (see this post and the 5-stars of open data engagement for some more reflections on this), and advocates of open data should avoid letting government off the hook on supporting effective access to data. However, where I would agree with you is that this shouldn’t be instead of, or shouldn’t delay, the release of underlying datasets, as even when government provides information, there needs to be the possibility of citizens providing their own alternative interpretations and representations of the underlying data.

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