I’ve been at DFID and Omidya’s OpenUp conference on transparency and open government. It was a star-studded affair, stimulating and full of insight. But….
The morning focused on transparency and open data, we heard from a strong panel about the power of initiatives like Ushahidi to use transparency and crowdsourcing to empower citizens. One of the speakers – Anne Jellema of the WWW Foundation – noted that technology is mostly used by white, literate men who’d use it anyway. But that this isn’t a problem, she said, because they are doing things to make government more responsive to citizens (I paraphrase, I wasn’t making notes). If you look at fantastic platforms like fixmystreet or ipaidabribe then this is true. But technology isn’t neutral, and is just as likely to be used by non-progressive forces against the interests of citizens at the bottom of the pile.
There wasn’t enough talk, for my taste, on issues of power; on how to ensure that the least powerful are able to use new technology platforms to hold governments to account, to make public services work for them.
We heard a lot about tech platforms and open data initiatives that have made significant differences to citizens. But we heard very little thought about the dangers of entrenching power and strengthening those who already have voice. We also only heard one example of the dark side of open data where it has been used to convince poorer communities to give up title to land (@timdavies pointed us to this paper which gives some details); I can’t believe there aren’t more stories out there, but open data isn’t really my field.
My question to the panel was, ‘what does success, in the fields of open government and open data, look like?’
I didn’t get much of an answer. So what do you think? If we are successful when we open up data and government, what will have changed for citizens? How do we ensure that we support the least powerful to benefit too?
Picture credit: Jarod Carruthers