We Won the Open Data Battle. Now Comes the Tricky Part.

What's to come?
Sept. 7 2012 3:43 PM

Lies, Damned Lies, and Open Data

Governments are releasing more information than ever. But now we have to face new kinds of political debates.

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By making the survey voluntary, a number of issues—principally the problem of selection bias—rendered the result virtually worthless. Many suspect this was the point. As one conservative pundit noted, scrapping the long form was a fantastic way to prevent the government from helping a specific community. If you don’t know about inequity, marginalization, or structural racism, you can pretend they don’t exist. In reality, governments, ever responsive to citizens, will probably still run these programs—they’ll just be less efficient and effective. It will also make the country less productive as the nonprofit and business sectors, which also rely on these data, are negatively impacted. (It is worth noting that the U.S. House of Representatives voted to eliminate the ACS earlier this year.)

Of course, if political force fails to shape how or what data are collected, it can always just prevent government from using it. This practice was commonplace during the Bush presidency, where language and facts on issues like climate were systematically suppressed, such as in the EPA’s Report on the Environment.

Even the most innocuous-sounding data can become political in this atmosphere. North Carolina’s Senate recently approved a law requiring that only “historical data” be used to predict its future sea levels. So despite data suggesting the state’s sea levels will rise 39 inches by the end of the century, the North Carolina law required officials to plan for a 12-inch increase.

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As scientific data—and more problematically, government data—increasingly come into conflict with official policy or dogma, expect more of this. Having accurate stats can be a powerful tool—but it is only that. Data cannot face down ignorance or self-serving interests (such as North Carolina’s coastal property developers) on its own.

We are going to have to find ways to ensure not just the openness of data, but also its credibility and reliability. The Argentinean government has fudged its inflation statistics to such a degree that few citizens believe the state, and organizations like the Economist have abandoned republishing its official numbers. But governments will find more sophisticated, subtle approaches to massaging the data. How will we be able to tell if we don’t start these conversations about best practices now?

Making data open is an important method by which to ensuring it serves citizens well. For example, imagine if census data weren’t open and available. Without expert, but also public, access to verify the work of the U.S. government, even worse distortions would be possible, allowing the politically powerful to manipulate the census to serve their interests. But proactive, rather than just reactive, steps will be needed to ensure that government data serve citizens, not special interests. Open data does not represent an endgame, but another step in what will likely be a never-ending struggle for rational debate and evidence based public policy.

Correction, Sept. 9, 2012: This article originally and incorrectly referred to Champaign and Urbana as suburbs of Chicago. The twin cities are located about 150 miles away from Chicago.

An expert in open innovation, David Eaves is retained by governments and organizations like the World Bank, Code for America, and Greenpeace International. He writes on these and other issues at TechPresident and Eaves.ca.