Ideas Emerge to Bring Open Data, RTI Efforts Closer

2 November 2013

Suggestions for improving cooperation between the open data and right to information communities emerged during a session Oct. 31 at the Open Government Partnership summit in London.

The ideas came during a temperate discussion among persons from each community.

One suggestion was to work together to compile example of access laws being used to get data from governments and of data that is not being provided.

An open data activist promised to invite an RTI person to his annual open data event. “Open data people just don’t see RTI people as their people,” he commented, adding that “everyone who is doing it wants to have access to information.”

“We have to take everyone on board” to campaign for good access, said another participant.

Including open data provisions in laws was also suggested.

Within government, went another suggestion, “the records people and the FOI people should get together.”

Build Power Together

Canadian blogger and open data activist David Eaves called for cooperation between open data and right to information activists after describing differences between the two communities.

Eaves tied the expansion of RTI legislation in last half of the 20th Century to the invention of the photocopier in the 1960s. “We are both technology driven movements,” he said, saying the RTI community has “this myth of itself as value driven and technology agnostic and I think that’s not true.”

The open data movement seeks a deeper goal, Eaves said, to get control of government data early, “rather than apply a process at the tail end.” He said, “I think we have a lot to offer the RTI movement.”

He agreed with a characterization of the open data community as “policy light,” but said this was a function of many newcomers, contrasting this with a lack of newcomers in the RTI community.  He said many open data activists do care about government and depend on it for the data they use.

“We have a lot of common interests,” he said. He also said, “The question is how we build power together.”

Technology in Indian Perspective

Aruna Roy, the Indian access to information champion, emphasized the needs of people lacking access to information technology.

She noted during a 53-day strike to press the case for an access law, the advocates were accused of being agents for the photocopier machine industry. The RTI Act movement in India “was driven by poverty, it was driven by desperation,” she said.

“Now we have more technology,” she said, but government files still can’t be accessed by very poor people, which is one reason that spending reports are posted on 100,000 village walls.

“We shouldn’t overemphasize the technology in the context of the world,” she said.

A second generation issue, Roy said, is to better design government information systems. “That’s where I see this coming together.”

Friction Called Pointless

Felipe Heusser, a Chilean activist with Ciudadano Inteligente and academic, described carrots and sticks used advance access to information, including how pressure for access to officials’ e-mails led to a new government commitment on FOI in its OGP action plan.

The idea of friction between the open data and FOI communities is “pointless,” he said, calling them “both expressions of the same idea about freedom of information.” Open data efforts are a digital update of the proactive transparency principle in a more substantive way, he said.

“I think open data needs the RTI community, because the disclosure of data should not be subject to the discretionary with governments,” Heusser said. The RTI community will need to embrace the benefits of open data and to appreciate the digital means through which information flows.

Overcoming Cultural Differences

Considering the cultural differences, Toby Mendel said, “It’s perhaps not surprising that the communities did not hit it off.” Mendel is the director  of the Canadian-based Center for Law and Democracy. There’s “a degree of truth” that the access community doesn’t understand the potential of technology, he said.

A lot of governments in the OGP, he said, are focused “very, very heavily on the fun OD stuff and not focusing on the hard RTI stuff.”

Mendel called RTI “the backstop of open data.” He said, “If you want to move beyond what government will give to you, you need to rely on RTI.”

“If we were working together on this, I think we would bring a lot more pressure to bear on governments,” he said.

“We have an awful lot to learn form each other,’’ he said,  pointing to the value of creating “openness by design” in record systems.

The RTI community can offer advocacy skills as well as legal and policy skills, according to Mendel.

The open data community is “starting to feel they need more of a legal base,” he noted.

“The good news is that I think we are actually less divided that we were,” he said

Topic Arises in Other Session, Too

Open Data-RTI relations also came up at a proactive disclosure session Oct. 30 during pre-summit conference held by civil society organizations

Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation said here is more interest within the open data community in getting “enforceable mechanisms.”

Helen Darbishire of Access Info Europe cited an example of a request being denied by the European Union and emphasized, “What do we do when we don’t get the data.”

Thousands of tweets emerged from the London summit (#OGP13) including one commented on the open data RTI topic:

FOI Youth Initiative ?@Youth4FOI 7h

#OpenGov is not just about open data. It also entails Freedom of Information! #OGP13 #PeoplesFOInow

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , ,

Filed under: What's New