International Open Data Conference. We Have to Move On. Now.

It has been a while since the end of the International Open Data Conference in Madrid but it seems it is not too late to share some reflections. It is not too late because the open data movement got stuck between enthusiasm of using new tools to bring the change and frustration that the change has not come. So while we are suspended between these emotions it is a good occasion to learn how to swing in the good direction.

I will start with a small observation. During the event, two workshops on open data and accountability were conducted. Contrary to other paths (including the main stage) I have not seen any public official taking part in it. Was it because the name of the workshop sounded scary? Accountability and transparency definitely looks better on paper than in reality so maybe it is not about the name itself but the content. Open data community did a lot to popularize the idea by using different arguments to promote its agenda. Better governance, services closer to citizens, savings, innovations, smart cities are slogans that sound nice to every mayor and politician. Transparency, accountability and freedom of information as part of freedom of expression are interfering too much with their political principles. From their perspective, transparency may often hurt.

For many years I was a great supporter of Poland joining the Open Government Partnership but to be honest I am not anymore. At the same time I have respect for the Polish government work in opening their data. The Council of Ministers has just accepted the Programme for Opening Data, Ministry of Digitization has organized the first hackaton and keeps improving e-services and the Parliament has implemented the reuse directive. However, in parallel, the government is undermining the check and balance principle by attacking the Constitutional Tribunal or introducing law which enables arbitrary blocking of websites by the Secret Service.

Poland is not alone in this ambiguity. I remember being in Mexico for the OGP Summit listening to great open data initiatives introduced by the government and later meeting journalists reminding us that several of their colleagues are killed every year. Sometimes out of inspiration of local governmental representatives.

I do not want to be understood as someone who is complaining about the open data movement achievements. For example the open parliament projects achieved a lot worldwide by changing the way how parliamentary data are delivered to people. But, in my opinion, we should focus more on thinking how to convince members of parliaments to make good use of data and then be responsive to citizens’ demands. The United States is the country were the idea of smart city is developing with the velocity of light but while others are questioning it, in the face of a strong position of Donald Trump in presidential elections, is it followed by empowering smart citizens.

The very good thing that has happened during IODC is that more and more people discussed those problems. It started with sharing frustration but soon led to critical evaluation. My reflections are part of this process. I still do believe that open data can be a vehicle that will drive us towards more democratic societies. For that reason, the ePaństwo Foundation endorsed the International Open Data Charter. We particularly agree with a statement that the release of open data strengthens governance and trust in our public institutions, reinforces the governments’ obligation to respect the rule of law, and provides a transparent and accountable foundation to improve decision-making and enhance provision of public services. Although, we are aware that without a strong position and watchdog approach the governments will rest unresponsive and citizens will bang their heads against the wall.

So maybe on the next occasion — save the date for Personal Democracy Forum in Gdańsk, Poland — we have to rise those issues from the main stage and deliberate on what can be done to restrain the open data community from feeling that it’s smashing against the wall and that, while improving everyday life of citizens, we are sometimes giving the governments a good excuse not to improve their democratic and human rights policies.