Of prisons, pain, open data and progress

Disembarking at Robben Island

While in Cape Town, South Africa, on a recent trip for SlashRoots, I got to tour Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The confused excitement of a possible whale sighting aside (the Robben Island tour begins and ends with a boat ride) it was an experience that was both sobering and inspirational.

Listening to the tour guide on Robben Island, the magnitude of the sacrifice these then young men made struck me. When they were imprisoned there, in rooms smaller than the guard dogs’ kennels, being systematically stripped of dignity and humanity, they had no way of knowing how the story would end. They didn’t even know if they’d live to be free again, much less to be lauded as heroes, on the winning side of history.

And then the former prisoners chose to turn Robben Island into a museum, and give the tours themselves. I couldn’t help but wonder: what does it take to open up some of the most painful parts of one’s life to gawking tourists every day? And yet, they felt it must be done, so that subsequent generations do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

It might sound like a trivial comparison, but in some ways it reminded me of the issues we explored in a open government hackathon and in a open budget project while I was in Cape Town. There’s growing public demand, worldwide, for government transparency, and open data has a big role to play in that.

The nuts and bolts of opening up government data, however, can involve sacrifices for individual civil servants — those who are responsible for that data. How will I find the time to digitise government records, alongside all my other duties? Will I lose my job if I make a mistake while following ambiguous government guidelines on opening up datasets? Or if public outcry against something revealed by the data demands that heads roll? Or if, since the data is open, they no longer need my expertise? What happens to my reputation if the public concludes, rightly or wrongly, that I’ve been part of a cover-up that has only now been able to come to light?

Or, simply, civil servants may fear the repercussions of transparency revealing to the public the simple gaps in the data that they already know exist. Whether imagined or all too real, these fears are just a few examples of the human considerations and concerns we must grapple with when we ask public bodies to be more transparent — even if we believe the public has a right to know, and notwithstanding the fact that the opening up of the information can be the first step in improving that data, and gaining support from concerned citizens who want to contribute to solving common problems.

As a citizen open data sounds great, but as an employee with a very specific skill set, precarious responsibilities and a family to feed, it can sometimes be intimidating. As an organisation, opening up your inner workings, even for a greater cause, is not an easy thing to do. But as those Robben Island prisoners show, if we work through these difficult decisions, maybe our society can be more open, more progressive for it.