Notes Against Openness

I’m really look­ing for­ward to being part of FutureEv­ery­thing in Man­ches­ter next week, where I’ll be a pan­el­list at Open Data Man­ches­ter on Tues­day and at Poli­cies and Pol­i­tics of Open Data on Thurs­day. Each event starts with five-minute lead-ins from the panel mem­bers. Some of the pan­el­lists are real experts who know more than I do about open data, but “in for a penny, in for a pound”: so on Tues­day I’ll use my five min­utes to argue against stan­dards (and espe­cially uni­ver­sal standards), and on Thurs­day I’ll argue that open­ness is an idea that has out­lived its usefulness.

Here are notes for Thursday’s open­ing remarks, which will be famil­iar to reg­u­lar read­ers. I think I’ll have to cut them down a bit for time.

We all know that the ideas and actions around “Open Gov­ern­ment Data” have cre­ated a very wide umbrella that cov­ers many dif­fer­ent agen­das. It cov­ers civil liberties cam­paign­ers, civic activists, star­tups, politi­cians from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum, and major inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions. And we all know that those agen­das and groups are a bit uncom­fort­able being in such close prox­im­ity. But like “free­dom”, “open­ness” is some­thing that every­one can agree on, and it’s served to paper over the cracks between these dis­parate interests.

Unfor­tu­nately, it looks to me increas­ingly as if the lan­guage of trans­parency, the lan­guage of non-commercial civic engage­ment, and the roman­tic lan­guage of rebel­lion are being used to pro­vide an excit­ing and appeal­ing facade for an agenda that has noth­ing to do with trans­parency, noth­ing to do with civic par­tic­i­pa­tion, and a lot to do with tra­di­tional power pol­i­tics and profit making.

It’s time to get out from under the umbrella and to acknowl­edge that we are in dif­fer­ent camps with dif­fer­ent goals. And to do that we need to get rid of the idea that “open­ness” is an unal­loyed virtue.

Here are two exam­ples of how open­ness is being misused.

The first is about open­ness and trans­parency, and it’s from Canada where I live and of which I am a cit­i­zen. The Gov­ern­ment of Canada has an active open data program. It’s a mem­ber of the Open Gov­ern­ment Part­ner­ship, now chaired by Fran­cis Maude; if you look in Capgemini’s recent white paper on The Open Data Economy you’ll see Canada together with the UK, the USA, France, and Aus­tralia as one of the gov­ern­ment trend­set­ters. Last Octo­ber Jonathan Rosen­berg of Google posted an arti­cle on the com­pany web site titled “The Future is Open”, in which he wrote:

Claims to gov­ern­men­tal trans­parency are one thing – moves like the one Canada made recently, with its for­mal Open Gov­ern­ment Dec­la­ra­tion, are another. The doc­u­ment recog­nises that open is an active state, not a pas­sive one – it’s not just that data should be free to cit­i­zens when­ever pos­si­ble, but that an active ‘cul­ture of engage­ment’ should be the goal of such measures.
So three cheers for open gov­ern­ment Canada? Of course, that’s only one side of the story. Here’s a list of other events in Canada around open­ness and transparency.

Library and Archives Canada, which is the equiv­a­lent of the British Library, has seen its acqui­si­tion and lend­ing pro­grams cut back. Its his­tor­i­cal item spend­ing has been cut from $385K (’08-’09) to $12K (’12-’13) as its over­all bud­get has been cut from $173M to $108M. (Toronto Star, March 10, 2013)
The Gov­ern­ment is “muz­zling its sci­en­tists” accord­ing to the BBC. A pro­to­col intro­duced in 2008 requires that “all inter­view requests for sci­en­tists employed by the gov­ern­ment must first be cleared by offi­cials. A deci­sion as to whether to allow the inter­view can take sev­eral days, which can pre­vent gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists comment­ing on break­ing news sto­ries. Sources say that requests are often refused and when inter­views are granted, gov­ern­ment media rela­tions offi­cials can and do ask for writ­ten ques­tions to be sub­mit­ted in advance and elect to sit in on the interview.”
Cuts to Sta­tis­tics Canada: in response to yet another wave of cuts, a group of con­cerned aca­d­e­mics recently wrote that “For many of us, it started with the cen­sus. In a con­tro­ver­sial move, our gov­ern­ment switched from a manda­tory to a vol­un­tary cen­sus in the sum­mer of 2010. The for­mer Sta­tis­tics Canada chief, the media and the research com­mu­nity reacted with shock and largely opposed the change to no avail … We have now halted the col­lec­tion and analy­sis of our most infor­ma­tive longitu­di­nal infor­ma­tion on our labour force, on the work­place, on health and health care, and on child well-being. Add to this our uni­ver­sal cen­sus of the population. How might Canada expect to meet the pol­icy chal­lenges of the future when we no longer have the abil­ity to under­stand where we are today?” (Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba)
The move to pack­ag­ing leg­is­la­tion in so-called “Omnibus bills” that cover many dif­fer­ent ini­tia­tives in a sin­gle, per­haps sev­eral hun­dred page, pack­age has severely cur­tailed pub­lic debate over new ini­tia­tives and major leg­isla­tive changes.
If there’s a mes­sage here, it’s just that open­ness can­not be mea­sured in bytes. And if some­one is mea­sur­ing it in bytes, then you have to won­der what the motives are. So the CapGem­ini report (above) looks at the Open Data Econ­omy sim­ply by com­par­ing the open data por­tals that each nation has pro­duced. This is datawashing.

A brief sec­ond story. If you look at what kind of new eco­nomic pos­si­bil­i­ties are being pro­moted by open data, CapGem­ini high­lights Zil­low, a Real Estate Adver­tis­ing net­work based in Cal­i­for­nia, which uses open tax data, county records, and home-for-sale list­ings. If there is one indus­try who has proved able to use the lan­guage of open­ness and dis­rup­tion to great effect, it’s the Sil­i­con Val­ley ven­ture cap­i­tal indus­try. But whereas when Linus Tor­valds started Linux “open­ness” was a tool for indi­vid­u­als to build some­thing to com­pete with large enter­prises, now “open­ness” is a tool for large enter­prises with a lot of fund­ing to ham­mer smaller non-profit groups. We hear the lan­guage of open­ness and dis­rup­tion com­ing in edu­ca­tion, where Cours­era and Udac­ity can go to Davos and paint them­selves as rad­i­cals, to Uber and AirBnB, whosee mil­lion­aires claim to be part of a “shar­ing econ­omy” dis­rupt­ing night­mare over­lords like the Bed & Break­fast indus­try or the taxi car­tels. We are see­ing the emer­gence of a winner-take-all econ­omy in which small orga­ni­za­tions and small busi­nesses are severely hand­i­capped against those with cap­i­tal behind them. All in the name of openness.

If we see civic par­tic­i­pa­tion as an end in itself, which I do, then we need to treat civic com­put­ing like a cul­tural activ­ity. That means we need to build some bar­ri­ers to pro­tect civic-scale groups from large com­pa­nies who have advan­tages of scale, and who can deliver “effi­ciency” but not par­tic­i­pa­tion. Tony Ageh of the BBC, speaking at this con­fer­ence, describes a vision of pub­lic domain data as a “com­mons” but I think he gets it wrong. A com­mons is not a free-for-all, where any­one can come and take any­thing they want. A com­mons sug­gests a group of peo­ple who all have an inter­est in main­tain­ing and cul­ti­vat­ing a shared resource, and that sug­gests lim­its to access from out­side. There is room for a num­ber of mod­els of pro­vid­ing mixed access to data, from non-commercial licenses, to closed partnerships between cities and cit­i­zen groups, to non-standard for­mats for shar­ing that reflect the quirks of indi­vid­ual cities and groups. Each of these seems to break the idea of “open­ness” in one way or another, but we should be pre­pared to do so. Open­ness in and of itself is not enough to hold together a worth­while coalition and it’s time to get over it.