Is ‘Open by Default’ too high a bar?

Reflections from the #ODCrefresh process

by Natalia Carfi

We’ve just closed the first global consultation reviewing the Charter’s six Principles! The good news is that most people agree with our new strategic approach focusing on ‘publication with purpose’. However, we still have work to do in finding consensus on how we get there. One of the major points of contention that has emerged is whether Principle 1 on data being ‘Open by Default’ sets too high a bar.

There has been growing recognition that opening up data in isolation is less effective than it can be if targeted at solving specific problems — that ‘publish with purpose’ can deliver more than ‘publish and they will come’. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this statement?

This was one of the questions that we posed as part of our #ODCrefresh survey. The survey was part of a global consultation process aimed at reviewing and refreshing the Open Data Charter’s six Principles on open data to ensure that they remain at the cutting-edge of developments in the field. We received over 55 responses from a range of stakeholders around the world, in three different languages — and with very different views.

In the survey, we asked respondents to pick a number between 1 and 5 to represent the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the above statement; with 1 representing strong disagreement with the statement and 5, strong agreement. Here are the results:

Figure 1: To what extent do you agree that ‘publish with purpose’ can deliver more than ‘publish and they will come’?

What the data tells us then is that most people agree that publishing open data with a purpose in mind is a sensible approach, which is good news for us as the Charter’s 2018 strategy centres on this notion. What there is less agreement on is exactly what that means for the Charter’s Principles, and this is where some really interesting debates have emerged and are likely to continue in the coming months as we move forward with the #ODCrefresh process.

As it stands, Principles 5 and 6 of the Charter cover four broad areas of ‘use’: open data for improved governance and citizen engagement (Principle 5) and for inclusive development and innovation (Principle 6). Some respondents think that these four areas are sufficient to set the scope for ‘publication with purpose’ within the Charter while others believe that more explicit references to particular concerns such as data ethics, security and the provision of data ‘as a service’ should be incorporated within them.

Some consider ‘Open by Default’ to be the Principle that underpins the entire Open Data movement — others believe it puts too much pressure on countries to publish everything they have without regard for quality, security or privacy concerns.

Yet others believe that the notion of ‘publication with purpose’ clashes with Principle 1, the fundamental idea that data should be ‘Open by Default’. While some see Principle 1 as the cornerstone of the whole open data movement, underpinned by democratic theory and a core set of liberal values; others believe that it puts too much pressure on countries to publish everything they have without regard for quality, security or privacy concerns.

Another broad trend exposed through our consultation exists between representatives from resource-constrained countries and those from wealthier economies; with the former generally arguing that ‘Open by Default’ as a principle places too much strain on already tight budgets and human resources and the latter wanting to see the Principle strengthened even further. To try to find a middle ground between these two perspectives, after the survey had closed we convened two focus groups and asked them whether they thought it possible to bridge between the two ideas: ‘Open by Default’ and ‘Publication with Purpose’.

What was interesting to observe was just how differently the two groups responded.

Among other things, the first group pointed out that ‘Open by Default’ is a Principle while ‘Publication with Purpose’ is a strategy towards achieving that Principle.

The second group echoed some of this sentiment but also raised the point that the principle of data being open by default can be politically and culturally sensitive and suggested that the language used for Principle 1 could perhaps be revisited as part of the review process.

The second group then discussed what the objective of the Charter actually is — to set a high standard or to have as many adopting countries as possible. Most agreed that the priority should be to maintain a high standard.

Now that the global consultation process has ended, we need to analyse the approximately 600 individual inputs we have received and take decisions about what, if any, changes we need to make the Charter’s Principles. Our next steps for this process include harnessing the brain-power of three ad hoc Expert Groups that will help us analyse the data before putting their recommendations back to the public and the Charter’s adopting states for comment in September this year at the International Open Data Conference (IODC) taking place in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 27–28 September 2018.

The discussions that our #ODCrefresh process have initiated about the interplay between the various Principles within the Charter are fascinating. Many additional areas of contention have emerged within the consultation process that we will have to resolve in the coming months — for example, how exactly the Charter’s Principles should reflect emerging areas of concern around data privacy and protection, and the degree to which the Principles should be amended to better reflect the infrastructural dimensions of open data. As we move towards the IODC, we are looking forward to tackling these questions with you all in an open, inclusive and participatory way. At the end of the day, that is ultimately what this is all about.

For more information about how to get involved in the #ODCrefresh process, please contact info@opendatacharter.org.