The dark side of open data: politicized data.

As more data becomes available at a national and a local level, we have to be aware of the danger that it will become politicised.  The data will become politicised in two senses. First, all politics are local.  The more abstract the data is, such as a national CO2 output, the less politically contestable it becomes.  This is not to say that CO2 itself is not contestable, but rather the overall measure for the US is not anyone’s particular issue. To make it a particular political issue, several layers have to be disentangled before a political angle can be imported.

The second, and the focus here, is that that open data can be politicized at the local level.  At one level, politicised data can resemble climate data or any other politically charged data such as data on race and intelligence.  The political element enters when questions emerge about what the data tells us or means.  Follow up questions will be around methodology or collection methods. For example,   did you collect it appropriately? What was your methodology? Why did you collect it?

The politics enter when people begin to consider the motive and intent behind the open data. However, it can also be the data itself.  Take for example, one of the first data sets on relating to assaults on police officers.  The information is vitally important to law and order within a society and proper respect for a central institutions supporting that order. Yet, one can quickly see a different political motive for publishing that data set.  For example, why are there no data sets available (yet) around assaults in police custody?  Alternatively, where is the data set on the number of complaints about police brutality?  One can quickly see the political consequences of these questions. Who will collect this information? Will it be verified? Will the police data match that of independent monitors? Who will pay for the information to be collected?

Although governments, in particular, avoid these issues because they do not collect (usually) such political charged information, there is a second level to data being politicised.

On the second level, the data itself becomes the issue. When the data is free and we have people developing data sets, mapping, and making them service user friendly, we will have debates about data and not policies and politics.  For example, a community activist  develops a map, based upon council data, showing that spend or a service and then use that data to argue that the Council should not do X but that it should do Y.

If the ruling party is not interested or it goes against their manifesto, how are they going to rebut or counter this argument, especially if it is based upon data that their organisation provided? Will the organisation be ready to, or have the capacity to, engage with the relevant groups that raises these issues?  Are the organisations going to have the resources to handle challenges that might emerge, at a very low technological cost, for mapping and presenting data that conflicts or challenges their approach?

At a basic level, this is the opportunity of the transparency agenda since it allows the public to get data and analyse it in ways to hold the government to account.  In such a scenario, we would see digital democracy at work.  Yet, the potential to manipulate such data to political ends is very high. I do not mean outright deception, but granting access to or not offering high quality data can shape that political agenda. (See for example, O’Hara Review of Privacy and Transparency (p.23) where he describes how privacy concerns can be used to prevent data disclosures.   In this situation, the data itself becomes the battleground.

What we may be seeing is that open government data becomes something like what community funding was in the 1960s America.  By distributing block grants and bypassing local government, the Government was able to get its programmes directly to the communities, but at a steep political cost. The local power brokers, such as a mayor or a legislature, that would have normally disbursed the money along with patronage, were suddenly under attack.  As Mayor Daley is reported to have said to Lyndon Johnson, “You are giving my political opponents MONEY!”

Where does it leave democracy and the role of public organisations?  Where does it leave the politicians or the civil servants charged with implementing their manifestos? The process is still early, but what we could see are debates about data, data quality, and data sharing that may politicize this process.  What could develop is an interest in withholding or delaying official statistics to sustain a particular political point.  Moreover, the official statistics may come under adverse scrutiny, which is something that developed from the problems in the Vietnam War regarding “official statistics”.  The challenge, though, goes beyond statistics; it goes to the heart of the democratic process.

Will elected officials who campaigned for policies and decisions that will allocate resources to meet their political goals, accept that spending is reallocated according to a digital map created by a community activist?  In any political process, there are arrangements between what is possible and what can be achieved on the ground.  What may yet occur is that the tool of open data, while innovative and interesting, will be subsumed into the political mainstream. However, until that happens, there will be tension between what been promised politically and alternative models based upon the open data.

If the challenges that emerged from the data around Climate change are a barometer for what can happen to data in a political context, what will happen to the data around crime in a neighbourhood?

Consider the following scenario:  An Accident and Emergency room has 100 victims of violent assault come to it every Friday.  The police, however, only receive reports of 15 violent assaults every Friday.  Who is going to reconcile those numbers?  How will funding be allocated between the Police and the PCT?  Who will decide how those numbers will be used?  What if someone maps those numbers?  Suddenly the AnE will show some neighbourhoods as violence hot spots while the police may not show them as violence hotspots?  Who will decide where the policing resources are used?  Will such data be collected?  If it is not collected, why not? Who will decide which data is collected?

(Of courses, not all sharing is bade and the police and the hospitals can and do cooperate.  A noted success story is the information sharing protocol for passing anonymised data of victims from the hospitals to the local police to show hotspots and pre-empt violence and possible admissions to the hospital.). (BMJ 2011; 342:d3313) See also:

From a digital democrat’s point of view, if such data is available, such as in the police intelligence system, why is it not available to the public? Thus, the issue will start to develop as the transparency agenda develops into new areas and pushes the boundaries of what is public data and what is private data.

The issue of political data can be seen in how Chicago’s crime data might be used.  Chicago is planning to publish crime data going back 10 years on all crimes and map them against that data.  What remains to be seen is how this will affect the political landscape.  Will this create new incentives and puncture long held beliefs about policing and crime levels?  What will it say about policing and its effectiveness in high crime areas?

Some fundamental political questions need to be thought through around these developments because they will have serious budgetary consequences and service implications.  Are the politicians ready for these discussions? Are the public aware of them? There has been a lot of talk about the “applications” and precious little about the “politics” of open data. What remains to be seen is how the emerging transparency agenda around open data will affect the democratic process especially the danger of a digital divide becoming a digital democratic deficit.

What is clear is the need for a deeper and wider discussion of digital democracy in the dawn of open data so that politicians and the public understand the issues and the implications.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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