Big data is the term used to define the perpetual and massive data gathered by corporations and governments on consumers and citizens. When the subject of data is not necessarily individuals but governments and companies themselves, we can call it civic data, and when systematically generated in large amounts, civic big data. Increasingly, a new generation of initiatives is generating and organizing structured data on particular societal issues from human rights violations to auditing government budgets, from labor crimes to climate justice. These civic data initiatives diverge from the traditional civil society organizations in their outcomes, that they don’t just publish their research as reports, but also open it to the public as a database.
Civic data initiatives are quite different in their data work than international non-governmental organizations such as UN, OECD, World Bank and other similar bodies. Such organizations track social, economical, political conditions of countries and concentrate upon producing general statistical data, whereas civic data initiatives aim to produce actionable data on issues that impact individuals directly. The change in the GDP value of a country is useless for people struggling for free transportation in their city. Incarceration rate of a country does not help the struggle of the imprisoned journalists. Corruption indicators may serve as a parameter in a country’s credit score, but does not help to resolve monopolization created with public procurement. Carbon emission statistics do not prevent the energy deals between corrupt governments that destroy the nature in their region.
Needless to say, civic data initiatives also differ from governmental institutions, which are reluctant to share any more that they are legally obligated to. Many governments in the world simply dump scanned hard copies of documents on official websites instead of releasing machine readable data, which prevents systematic auditing of government activities. Civic data initiatives, on the other hand, make it a priority to structure and release their data in formats that are both accessible and queryable.
Civic data initiatives also deviate from general purpose information commons such as Wikipedia. Because they consistently engage with problems, closely watch a particular societal issue, make frequent updates, even record from the field to generate and organize highly granular data about the matter.
In fact, the purpose of civic data initiatives is not necessarily to inform public about what is happening, but to provide dependable data based on specific facts and evidences. Civic data initiatives proactively conduct research and converge data from their own field records (interviews and examinations), existing empirical research (other studies), public information (government records to media reports), and private sources (leaks and what not). They organize data into structures, connect the dots, employ data standards, form databases, and provide APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). They systematically publish data supported with analysis and stories.
Once generated, civic data moves. It supports advocacy campaigns, mediates focusing attention on the perpetrator of a cause, fuels investigative journalism, helps build resilient civil positions, becomes a stepping stone for another NGO’s maneuver against status quo, contributes the development of solidarity among struggling communities. The work of civic data initiatives becomes a useful reference for anyone who care about societal issues including journalists, activists, advocates, lawyers, artists, designers, technologists, academics and other civil society organizations.
As a civic database evolves, a distinctive vocabulary emerges, a vocabulary that prioritizes the civil society and freedoms as opposed to the status quo. When applications and interfaces use such data, the vocabulary would circulate with protocological interventions, which would allow the public explore the issues from the perspective of civil society instead of the government and corporations. Thus, it would help gain positions of influence that can develop counter-hegemony for the socialist movement, as Gramsci puts it in his writings the War of Position / War of Manoeuvre.
In fact, systematic abuse of power, bluntly oppressive or subtly hypocrite, has to be confronted with systematic struggle. Civic data work emerges as one particular mode of contributing to such struggle.
Civic data initiatives
Several civic data initiatives generate data on variety of issues at different geographies, scopes, and scales. The non-exhaustive list below have information on founders, data sources, and financial support. It is sorted according to each initiative’s founding year. Please send your suggestions to contact at graphcommons.com. See more detailed information and updates on the spreadsheet of civic data initiatives.
Open Secrets tracks data about the money flow in the US government, so it becomes more accessible for journalists, researchers, and advocates. Founded as a non-profit in 1983 by Center for Responsive Politics, gets support from variety of institutions.
PolitiFact is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. Uses on-the-record interviews as its data source. Founded in 2007 as a non-profit organization by Tampa Bay Times. Supported by Democracy Fund, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Knight Foundation, Craigslist Charitable Fund, and the Collins Center for Public Policy.
Littlesis is a database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government. Their data derives from government filings, news articles, and other reputable sources. It also provides an API for retrieving the data. Founded in 2009 as a project of Project of Public Accountability Initiative. Financially supported by institutions including Sunlight Foundation, Chorus Foundation, and Arca Foundation.
OpenCorporates aims to have a URL for every company in the world. Founded as a for-profit company by Chrinon Ltd (Registered in UK) in 2010. Data source from official company registers, company website scrapes, recently from Word Bank Institute and Oknf. They generate income from paid plans for using their API.
OpenSpending maps the money worldwide — that is, to track and analyse public financial information globally. It is meant to be a resource for individuals and groups who wish to discuss and investigate public financial information, including journalists, academics, campaigners, and more. Founded as a project in 2011 by Open Knowledge Foundation, it gets financial support from Open Knowledge Foundation, 4iP, Open Society Foundation, Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Hewlett Foundation
OpenOil is a consultancy, publishing house and training provider, specialised on open data products and services around natural resources. Provides API access to the database. Founded as a company in 2011 by a Reuters correspondent. Supported by Shuttleworth Foundation and also provides consulting to international organizations.
EJOLT is a global research project bringing science and society together to catalogue and analyze ecological distribution conflicts and confront environmental injustice. Founded as a platform in 2011 with many constituents. Financially supported by the European Union 7th Framework Programme.
Istanbul Worker’s Health and Safety Labor Watch reports on the workplace homicides, accidents, occupational diseases and safety conditions across Turkey. Founded in 2011 as a platform by members from Istanbul Medical Chamber, Chamber of Turkish Engineers and Architects, Scholars from Istanbul, Unions. Financially supported by individual donations, Istanbul Medical Chamber, Petrol-İş Union, TEK-GIDA İş Union, voluntary work.
Open Duka provides a freely accessible database of information on Kenyan entities. Founded by Open Institute in 2012, the project scrapes data from various sources that range from shareholder information, procurement information, legal cases and company information. It is built in partnership with the National Council of Law Reporting and funded by A.T.T.I.
InfoAmazonia provides timely news and reports of the endangered Amazon region. Founded by oEco, Internews in 2012, the project combines data from government databases, Open Street Map, and other NGO databases. Supported by ICFJ, Avina, CDKN, Skoll Foundation.
Networks of Dispossession maps the relations of capital and power in Turkey. Founded as a working group in June 2013 during the Gezi Park resistance, the project compiles data from government databases, media reports, and company websites. Publishes interactive maps and provides a search engine and an API via the Graph Commons platform. It is a voluntary work and does not have any financial support.
Poderopedia Mapping issues of local-regional socio-economic development, public investments, and ecology in Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia. Founded in 2013, the project is funded by Knight Foundation and International Center for Journalists.
Open Interests is a catalogue of political and commercial actors related to the European Union. Founded by the LobbyFacts project team in 2014, the project compiles data from European Lobby Register, Register of Expert Groups membership, Financial Transparency System, Tenders Electronic Daily (TED) and provides a search engine, which can be used to quickly retrieve information about the activities of companies, people and institutions in a European context. The project is supported by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) and LobbyControl, OKFN Labs and Knight-Mozilla OpenNews.
La Fabrique de La loi (The Law Factory) maps issues of local-regional socio-economic development, public investments, and ecology in France. Started in 2014, the project builds a database by tracking bills from government sources, provides a search engine as well as an API. The partners of the project are CEE Sciences Po, médialab Sciences Po, Regards Citoyens, and Density Design.
Mapping Media Freedom identifies threats, violations and limitations faced by members of the press throughout European Union member states, candidates for entry and neighbouring countries. Initiated by Index on Censorship and European Commission in 2004, the project identifies threats, violations and limitations faced by members of the press throughout European Union member states, candidates for entry and neighbouring countries.
Regional Governance and Local Democarcy maps issues of local-regional socio-economic development, public investments, and ecology in Turkey. Commissions researchers and participants from the region, maps the generated data and publishes along with video discussions . Founded in 2015 by Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly and financially supported by European Commission, Turkey’s Ministry of European Union.
Open Contracting Partnership open up public contracting through disclosure, data and engagement so that the huge sums of money involved are spent honestly, fairly, and effectively. Data source is the participating governments in their program. Spun out of the World Bank in 2015 as a non-profit, and financially supported William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundation, Laura and John Arnold Foundation, GIZ, Hivos.
This is a non-exhaustive list, please send your suggestions to contact at graphcommons.com. See more detailed information and updates on the spreadsheet of civic data initiatives.
This article was originally published in Turkish (11.06.2016) and translated to Kurdish (15.06.2016), both published on Bianet.org. Thank you Ahmet Kizilay and Zeyno Ustun for proofreading and suggestions.