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Open government = open data + open people?

Karen Brock |

Many governments, international agencies and civil society organisations support and promote open data. The Open Government Declaration states that “people all around the world are demanding more openness in government”. But what kind of openness and what kind of open data are they demanding? And what are they doing with it? And – perhaps most importantly – are they using it to hold governments to account?

new research report by the Centre for Municipal Research and Advice in South Africa, supported by Making All Voices Count, discusses these questions with a range of civil society groups. It comes up with ten different ways that they use open government data – and discusses some of the challenges and obstacles that they face in sourcing, understanding and using it.

The research found a demand not only for data, but also for dialogue between government and citizens to further accountability. While most participants demonstrated their creative and nuanced thinking about using data to further accountability, they also expressed their frustration with local government actors’ lack of response to their efforts.

There were many instances where organisations approached government officials with data – annual reports, standards of service, contracts with service providers – demanding change in their communities. Yet they often had little success in trying to make government officials act on the data presented to them. These issues support the argument that more data does not necessarily lead to an improvement in or strengthening of government accountability or responsiveness.

So – this research found many ways in which pursuing open government data initiatives is worthwhile, and that there are many opportunities to take these much further. But it also found that the experiences of the participants to date suggest that national-level open data portals are likely to be only one part of the solution.

Decisions about which data to make open need to be based on demand; in particular, local data needs to be available, and at the local level. Also, open government may require more open government people, as well as more open data.