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Political earthquakes, fake news and hollow promises: why openness is needed now more than ever

This post originally appeared on December 7, 2016, on the Information Age blog.

The events of 2016 have challenged many of our assumptions. It certainly doesn’t feel like politics as normal. Commentators have wondered whether basic values are now being questioned. 

We have long assumed that open markets, open borders and open government were becoming the default. Indeed, as I write this I am attending the Open Government Partnership Summit in Paris, where representatives from 70 countries — including heads of state, start-ups, developers and researchers — are gathered to share their experiences and push forward the open government agenda.

However, for the first time in a while, many feel that openness is being challenged on the global political stage. For the UK and United States, surprise referendum and elections results suggest to some a major political change away from openness and towards closed, more isolationist relationships between nations.

As new political realities materialise, openness becomes more important, not less. As politicians argue to include the voices of the disenfranchised, openness becomes more essential, not less.

I believe three things will help to keep openness at the heart of government: better, accessible data to help us scrutinise politicians’ claims; improved data literacy to enable us to do so; and open innovation to reduce friction and create more opportunities in the economy.

There has been much talk of a post-truth era, of the rise of fake news. It is true that we struggle to find facts in the noise of political debates dominated by emotion and rhetoric.

The pre-referendum claims made by both the Remain and Leave campaigns have been subsequently questioned. The Leave campaign’s claim that £350 million per week would be saved by exiting the EU and redirected to the NHS is a good example of this. In May, Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, said the claim was “misleading and undermines trust in official statistics”, and it has now been unceremoniously dropped.

If more people were to have had access to relevant data and skills to interpret it, these various claims would have been more widely challenged. The role of good data journalism is also crucial here. There has to be some accountability around a story and its relationship to facts. The cynicism around ‘never letting facts get in the way of a good story’ has to be confronted.

Beyond transparency and accountability, other openness principles have been missing from elections and public debates — from the effective participation of civil society to inclusion and diversity — which may well have contributed to rising populism and apathy amongst citizens.

These openness principles are being reiterated by politicians and NGOs at the Open Government Partnership Summit this week, in the hope they will be applied more broadly by governments around the world.

Indeed, it is encouraging to see many examples of countries embracing openness. Australia is opening up its map and address data for anyone to use. France has legislated for data in its Digital Republic Bill and has announced a series of commitments to maintaining collaborative open data infrastructure. Ukraine has publicly committed to using data to tackle corruption and has joined the International Open Data Charter.

However, much more investment is needed to reap the benefits of openness.

The UK risks being left behind if it does not build on its own successes in the area, including its legislation to become the first G20 country to establish a publicly accessible central registry of who owns and controls UK companies.

An obvious investment the UK should make is data infrastructure. Just as it builds and maintains physical infrastructure, such as transport networks, it also needs to invest in building, maintaining and opening important data — from lists of legally constituted companies to maps, tariffs and timetables, and information on the provision of every kind of public service.

Too much of our data infrastructure is currently unreliable, inaccessible or only available for those who can pay. Innovators struggle to get hold of data they need, while many citizens do not feel empowered to access and use data.

Data literacy must be encouraged through our whole educational system and society more generally, so policymakers, businesses and citizens understand how to interpret data and use it well. Intermediaries like data journalists are needed to fill gaps in understanding and bring data to those who cannot or do not wish to become data experts themselves. Crucially, policymakers are going to need to be informed by insights that can only be gleaned through understanding and analysing data effectively.

Finally, we need to encourage open innovation wherever we can. Open innovations flourishes with data openly shared, using open standards, open licenses and wide participation. Governments alone can’t produce all the answers to today’s global challenges.

With stronger data infrastructure, better data literacy and open innovation, we will build an environment that can improve public services, improve our economies and improve our political debate. This will benefit everyone.

Democracy thrives on openness, evidence and people who are willing to work together. Let’s learn the lessons of 2016 and get on with building a better future.

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