When you research and work on an emerging field such as ‘open data’, you get a lot of questions and skepticism for good reasons. When new knowledge and actors emerge, it is a bit like shifting-sands. So when the Latin American community pioneered the first unconference and conference on open data, many argued this was just a fad. I argued the opposite. We are now running the third unconference and conference in the region next September in Chile. Latin American countries in the context of the Red Gealc, are about to formalise a forum and procedures to discuss open data policies in the region. The Open Data Day saw more than 15 groups across the continent organising events to free, use and discuss about public data. A community is now in place, actively working with data to deliver change in several areas.
So if you are still in the skeptic camp you might well say: ” Fine, it did not go away. Did it change something though?”. This is a fair question.But if you are serious about evaluating public policies then you might have already encountered this little book by Sabatier. Sabatier notes that to have a proper evaluation of a programme or a policy field, you might need to wait ten years from its emergence. If you really want to accumulate scientific knowledge, that could take more time. People (such as myself) working in the policy world sadly know about this. We often get evidence where we can and how we can to support or not an idea. The policy world is imperfect. And when technology is involved the buzz can be overwhelming. There is always a demand to perform as we were running a start-up.
I would like to have a more grounded and realistic conversation about open data and impact. It could be summarised in this statement: “Fine it did not go away. What kind of contribution “open data” is making and how it is happening in the field?“. In this way our debates and “meta-conversations” about impact become more evidence- based. But we might need to unpack this question. When I write “open data” I mean the policies that allow the release of public data in open formats for people (and machines) to re-use. So far there are some interesting developments which I would count as “impact” in three key areas: government, civil society and specific policy arenas.
a) Government: The “living” infrastructure
There is evidence that governments in this region are setting up the basic infrastructure to release public data. This was noted early in the day by public servants , considering government data as public infrastructure. We are seeing many ways in which governments build this infrastructure, with different emphasis according to their national priorities and administrative systems. But unlike other public infrastructure (e.g. roads) this one is alive. We have evidence showing the more data is used (hence becoming critical for certain services or activities) data changes, generally improving its quality. Suddenly when use emerges, there is more attention on how data is collected and assembled The crucial bit is the interaction process, the ebb and flow between users and producers of data. As a result we see evidence of certain government processes re-organised to share information that was often ignored even inside the “owner” organisation. Building this infrastructure often demands the re-deployment and update of several skills in the organisation leading to the emergence of new administrative units (Labs, Offices, Initiatives) tasked to engage with this policy. A few governments are even setting up new rules to establish certainty about the access, use and re-use of public data. Others are setting up forums where to discuss what to release first and how. Thus, we are seeing technical, political and social processes converge.
b) Civil society The map of civil society in Latin America is changing. A new breed of organisations is now emerging in the region. While we yet don’t have a full typology available, they certainly are the “demand side”. Some of them, like others in the global north, use data to check on government focusing on transparency and accountability issues. Others are taking advantage of open data policies and building social services in partnership with governments. Such partnerships and arrangements are fairly new. These organisations are part of a new collaborative logic, seldom seen in the region. Open Data is also empowering a new kind of journalism based on data and facts. And as a result new skills are needed to harness the potential of open data. Certainly we will need to get much better in terms of defining this skills and characterising these organisations.
c) Specific policy areas: It is early to tell whether open data is delivering dramatic change in specific policy areas. We know that the release of information affects the behavior of certain actors in some policy arenas. But it is often the process of releasing the data and building on it, what creates impact in a particular policy area. We might be able to see changes but we still need to develop better rationales or hypothesis of how change could unfold contributing to a particular policy outcome. Also we need to develop counterfactuals about what happens in absence of public data. In short we need a bit more of experimentation with specific policy domains.
Things are changing. Occasionally I’ve been approached by colleagues rushing us to set up a baselines to measure some of these changes, or to run experiments based on randomise control trials to check whether existence or absence of data has an effect at all. I am usually sympathetic to the need of setting up measurements but I often argue that we need to think carefully about this. In this first stage, at least in our research we argue for identifying key variables and causal mechanisms that eventually could be tested. It’s a young field and we need to be rigorous but also realistic about what can be measured and how. For some activists and advocates I might have stated the bleeding obvious. But it is often a shared worry to understand what works and how.
At the moment our research is far from predictive. I would love to have an algorithm to calculate the possible scenarios of how open data policies could deliver change in the most unequal region in the world. I don’t. But if I have to tell you three things important to consider for the future I would go for:
a) we need to critically assess the current public infrastructure in place to make sure that is actually open and delivers value b) we need to explore the collaboration processes and its key actors to promote data usage and impact on specific policy areas c) we need to make sure that the whole agenda serves towards inclusion and appropriation of public value by as many people as possible. While frustrating for many, this will demand understanding context of countries , cities, polities and policy domains. Open Data can enable change, it may even deliver a few quick wins. But only when data is used towards a greater purpose, it becomes embedded as a public good.