Chiselling away at open data blockages

At the ProgCity open data event I was talking to Denis Parfenov and Flora Fleischer from Open Knowledge Foundation Ireland about some of our AIRO experiences at trying to leverage data out of government departments and to push forward an open data agenda in Ireland.  I said I would share a slide I first presented a few years ago about the ostrich attitude to data and evidence-informed policy within many government departments and the arguments used against opening and sharing data and providing open access analysis tools and training.

These arguments were presented to me in one government department in a sequence as I rebutted each assertion.  The last two capture perfectly the way that Ireland works politically and institutionally.

  • We don’t need open data – officials on the ground know what’s going on their area/domain.
  • Anybody who knows what they’re doing in government can access, process and interpret relevant data.
  • The data is too sensitive to share and might used in ways for which it wasn’t intended.
  • The potential gains with respect to increased understanding, and more effective and efficient government are over-stated, and it’s not financially viable.
  • Just because you have data it doesn’t mean it’ll get used; that’s not how Irish policy is made.
  • Even if it shapes policy, policy is not implemented or enforced in Ireland.

The whole line of reasoning basically leads to: what is the point of opening data when it won’t make a blind bit of difference as to how the country is run and it’s only going to create additional work and be an annoyance?  Given the government has signed up to the open government partnership and to providing open data it’ll be interesting to see to what extent these attitudes persist amongst agencies and politicians (who equally dislike hard evidence as an inconvenience to gombeen politics).  Today, the government announced that postcode data will not be open, which is not a great start.

It is clear from recent attempts to make freedom of information requests more difficult that, with a few exceptions within some units, the government is not so much interested in open data for the purposes of transparency, reform and to be held to account, but rather the hope that they might be leveraged economically to create apps, new data products and jobs.  If that can be done in a way that does not get in the way of normal political and policy business I suspect they’d be delighted.

Hopefully, the open data movement will not get stifled by the sixth point: even if we have an open data policy it does not mean it’ll get implemented, or if it does it’ll take a long time and be limited.  To go back to postcodes, that has been in the pipeline for at least ten years, with endless false starts and consultations.  There is no reason why open data should take that long, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did.

2 thoughts on “Chiselling away at open data blockages

  1. Eamonn Doyle

    Perfectly articulated Rob. I for one am thankful that there are now people who are prepared to upset the status quo by systematically challenging those who would keep their data closed. Only yesterday I asked for a piece of data only to be told that “I’ll forward on your request to the XXX section who maintain this data . It’s their data.” Wow – “their data.”!!! I’m so pleased for them…

  2. Antoin O Lachtnain

    i would not leave out emotive issues. Control of the data is definitely emotional too. People get comfort from having control over a piece of data. It is not surprising, because it is so hard to have full control over anything these days. They are also scared, because the data they have is so bad they will be embarrassed or because they are afraid they will lose the power the data gives them. There has to be a mindset change, to think of data as a piece of infrastructure, like a footpath, rather than as something private. Even a bad footpath is better than a closed footpath, or no footpath at all. No public official would ever think of closing a footpath unless it were absolutely necessary to do so, because the footpath is obviously only useful if people get to walk on it. But data is treated in exactly the opposite way. No one wants to open it unless they are given a reason why they absolutely have to.

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