The battle for data, the battle for design… and the battle for empowerment

Just after posting earlier this morning on data and design, I came across a post from a couple of days ago by Dan McQuillanmaking a very closely related point. His focus is on the point that opening data does not in itself create empowered communities – and by implication, may well relatively disempower those groups less well able to take advantage of the new opportunities:

Open data doesn’t empower communities. I’m not saying open data is a bad thing, but we need to highlight the gap between the semantic web and social impact. Otherwise we’ll continue to get swept along on a tide of technocratic enthusiasm where hope lies in ‘a flood of data to create a data-literate citizenry’.

I’m inspired by the idea that nuggets of opened data could seed guerilla public services, plugging gaps left by government, but i don’t see any of that in the data.gov.uk apps list. The reasons aren’t technical but psychosocial – the people and communities who could use this data to help tackle their own disadvantage and marginalisation don’t have the self-confident sense of entitlement that makes for successful civic hacktivism.

That’s a valuable perspective, which is well worth having in mind when reflecting on these issues. 

And while I am at it, Steph Gray’s thoughts on good and bad transparency are also well worth reading:

The coming wave of transparency could transform this in a hugely positive way, using open data on costs, opportunities and performance to become a much more creative, cost-effective and agile institution, mindful of the money it spends and the results it achieves, and ensuring individuals are accountable for their work.

But it might make things worse, frightening senior managers into becoming more guarded, taking fewer ‘risks’ with even small amounts of money, and focusing on the process to the detriment of the outcome. It may also make public service less attractive not only for those with something to hide, but for effective people who don’t want to spend their time fending off misinterpretations of their decisions and personal value for money in the media. And to mirror Lessig’s point, it may push confidence in public administration over a cliff, in revealing evidence of wrongdoing which in fact is nothing of the sort.

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