Social inequalities in accessing open government data

Some governments are providing more open data. But, this may not be enough as citizens don’t necessarily have equal access to the data or abilities to interpret the information:

At least 16 nations have major open data initiatives; in many more, pressure is building for them to follow suit. The US has posted nearly 400,000 data sets at, and organizations like the Sunlight Foundation and are finding compelling ways to use public data—like linking political contributions to political actions. It’s the kind of thing that seems to prove Louis Brandeis’ famous comment: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But transparency alone is not a panacea, and it may even have a few nasty side effects. Take the case of the Bhoomi Project, an ambitious effort by the southern Indian state of Karnataka to digitize some 20 million land titles, making them more accessible. It was supposed to be a shining example of e-governance: open data that would benefit everyone and bring new efficiencies to the world’s largest democracy. Instead, the portal proved a boon to corporations and the wealthy, who hired lawyers and predatory land agents to challenge titles, hunt for errors in documentation, exploit gaps in records, identify targets for bribery, and snap up property. An initiative that was intended to level the playing field for small landholders ended up penalizing them; bribery costs and processing time actually increased.

A level playing field doesn’t mean much if you don’t know the rules or have the right sporting equipment. Uploading a million documents to the Internet doesn’t help people who don’t know how to sift through them. Michael Gurstein, a community informatics expert in Vancouver, British Columbia, has dubbed this problem the data divide. Indeed, a recent study on the use of open government data in Great Britain points out that most of the people using the information are already data sophisticates. The less sophisticated often don’t even know it’s there.

This touches on two issues of social inequality that are not discussed as much as they might be. First, not everyone has consistent access to the internet. It may be a necessity for the younger generations but for example, there are still problems in doing web surveys because internet users are not a representative cross-sample of the US population. Making the data available on the internet would make it available to more users but not necessarily all users. This ties in with some earlier thoughts I’ve had about whether internet access will become a de facto or defined human right in the future.

Second, not everyone knows where the open data is or how to go through it. Government information dumps require sorting through and some time to figure out what is going on. There may or may not be a guide through the information. As someone who has worked with some large sociological datasets, it always takes some time to become acclimated with the files and data before one can begin an analysis. This should legitimately become part of a college education: some training in how to sort through information and common databases. If we get to a point where the average informed citizen needs to be able to sort through government information online, wouldn’t this be a basic skill that all need to be taught? As the commentator suggests, the trained and sophisticated can take advantage of this data while the average citizen may be left behind.

The idea of having more open government information should cause us to think about how the internet might help close the gap between people (though I don’t hold any utopian expectations about this) rather than sustain or exacerbate social inequalities.

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