Open data and the desert

Mor Rubinstein
Jun 30, 2017 · 5 min read

I have been working in the open data field for a while now, going from local (Israel) to global to local (UK) again. From government data to charity data, from hacks to policy. In the last year I feel fatigue around me. There is some sense of where we want to go, but the way forward is foggy, and sometimes I think we’ve lost sight of the end station. We don’t even see what the next stop is.

I’ve heard the phrase “open data is a means to an end, not the end itself” too many times in the last year. But what is the end we’re actually looking for?

Open Data is a Tool for Openness?

I’ve heard this theory one too many times. I actually do not agree with it at all. The reason being that we don’t have one single way of defining openness. Is openness a political term? Is it a social term? Is it an economic term? Here are three examples out of many — Some will say openness is a society where access to knowledge can help people to advance themselves and improve their lives (Rufus Pollock), others will say it’s a way to make people listen and be heard without being afraid. I’ve also heard people saying that openness means being more involved in government decisions. Whatever it is, we need to create some sort of order in these definitions; not because the world is black and white, but because not trying to agree on one definition (or borders) creates miscommunication. It leaves (notice the wordplay) open interpretation that make us miscommunicate.

So like the standards and the data packages that the open data movement preach to, we need to sit down and agree that if openness is what we want, what does that look like and how can we get there together. We need to stop being afraid of definitions and just decide on borders. I am aware that openness can mean also open to new definitions, but having a definition does not mean that we can’t pivot or change it, but agreeing on one definition would be helpful, specifically if these are global collaborations. Until we will get that definition, maybe we have other goals?

And in the next video you can hear what I think of the definition of Open Government:

Open Data is a Mean to Speak About… Data and Digital

So if openness is a fuzzy stop, what is the next stop? The answer, I believe, is in the word data. Before you stop and tell me that this is a geeky aspiration and that data is a boring topic that people are afraid of, let me tell you something — you’re right. However, because data is so inaccessible, we need to put it in the spotlight, we need to make it tangible and less scary. We need to make it relevant

I think that in order to understand this I need to take you back to the bible. Yes, yes, that old book. In the old testament (book of exodus), the Jews that were freed out of Egypt, decided to go and look for another God (the golden heifer). In return, God to decides to punish them: they will not enter the holy land. This generation is called the “desert generation”. Instead, the Jews that did not know Pharaoh, who were born in the desert, entered the land.

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The Jodean Desert offers you a chair to wait around…

So in the context of digital — there is the generation that knew Pharaoh (or the fax machine) and the people who work only with a cell phone. This is not about age. There are some brilliant digital minds who are well past their 60’s. This is to say that like the golden heifer, this is a state of mind, and this mindset of ignoring technology is still around in the 21st century, and in key positions. It will take us probably a generation to convert everyone — the public sector, non profits and even the private sector to become fully digital, and even more so — data oriented. We can wait around, or we can actively start to work towards these changes.

We’ve made a lot of progress with data, but we also need to remember that we are far from the end goal. It is still hard to use data for policy, we are still struggling to create smart cities with data, and we still don’t have a clear answer on how to meaningfully use data in order to advance the Sustainable Development Goals. We have a lot of good pilots, but not enough long term projects that we can say are successful.

At the Institute for Government Digital event series, it was mentioned that is not enough to transform government to become digital. We also need to transform the way government works and create new norms and processes. In most countries, we are far away from being able to do this.

And that is what I believe we need to strive for. We need to discuss and build tools for quality, so the data is usable. We need to understand how data is produced, so we can improve it and make it accessible. We need to make sure that everyone knows how to analyse data and knows what the dangers are in bad data manipulation and we need to check all the time to see that we’re not putting anyone in danger and that privacy is kept.

In short, before we speak about how open data can promote a goal that we are afraid to define (openness), we need to see how it helps us to transform and move from the desert to the digital age. We need to see how e-government is more connected with the data functions of government. We need to make sure that data is not just a buzzword, but that it actually supports the daily practice of good government (and I love this blog post by the DEFRA about adopting digital culture). We need to transform entire systems and cultures and that takes more than 10 years. Or in the tweet version below —

I know for some of you this looks like nothing new. For me however, this looks like a basic step that is still BIG aspiration. At the end, the whole point of the blog post is also think about the next big thing, the place after the desert.

What’s next? If you care about this topic as much of I do (and I know that there are people there who do), comment on this blog post. Make it a living document for the future of the open data movement. Disagree with me? Say why. You think you can define openness? Please do it!

Let’s create this new vision. Let’s be inspired again. Let’s get out of the desert.

Thanks for the following people who helped in shaping this post — my boss, Rachel Rank, for proofreading my post and asking me the right questions about it, and to Ana Brandusescu, Paul Walsh, Steve Walker for all the comments and ideas.

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