On Sept. 17, The Tyee posted an opinion piece I wrote called The Dangerous Distraction of Faux Transparency.
In it, I protested that the government's new fad of proving they are "transparent" -- by voluntarily posting online data sets of information and using more social media -- was ultimately doing more harm than good, because it posed as a valid substitute for more urgently needed FOI law reform. It seemed that the means were becoming the ends, or as one speaker put it, "technology is now driving policy, not visa versa." I mused about whether the pro-transparency rhetoric of open data activists was being exploited by governments for anti-transparency ends.
The reader response to this mildly controversial piece was mainly positive, with most who wrote to me calling it a necessary and important reality check. But expectedly, a couple of readers objected, saying the argument appeared a bit too harsh, elitist and simplistic.
On Sept. 19, I listened to a panel discussion on "Government 2.0" at the B.C. Information Summit 2012 at Robson Square. My opinion was then modified by three points made by the speakers.
Three new views
First, I came to realize that data sets released to the public are not solely utilized by trivial pursuit app developers and commercial data miners. Earlier in the day, David Wrate, a B.C. government Internet designer, related how data sets on road intersections with the highest accident rates were mapped and used by parents as a guide for their children on which streets to avoid when walking to school. As well, for example, The Tyee adapted data sets to produce a valuable interactive map of B.C.'s carbon sinks and sources, and that data transmitted through Twitter was being employed by Downtown Eastside residents to locate homeless shelter beds available that night, or to help them find the lowest cost or free food. (FOI expert Toby Mendel still has "some skepticism" about data set utility.)
Secondly, the online data set and social media solution is not nearly so democratic as its boosters claim, for -- as criminology academic Mike Larsen said -- you need technical expertise to process and understand data sets, expertise that much of the public does not have. Moreover, how many homeless can afford iPhones and laptops? (On this point, I see a class split growing between the techo-rich and the so-called "techno peasants" -- which leads not to more socio-political equality, but less.)
Thirdly, Vancouver Sun reporter Chad Skelton explained that most of the database stories produced at the Sun were based on data sets that the newspaper had to obtain by FOI requests and not by governments' routine release (one reason being that it is difficult for governments to redact data sets to protect individuals' privacy), "and so we need the legal backstop of the FOI law." Many other news media outlets have reported the same thing. This would seem to confirm my thesis that the option of legal coercion (that is, to appeal with the force of law if refused) is the only guarantee for real transparency.
Environmental activist Gwen Barlee also noted the limitations of generic data sets, insofar as they tell you what decisions were made, but not how, or why.
If the push for online government was monopolistic and techno-utopian to the detriment of FOI laws, then it would be the political equivalent of someone addictively texting on an iPhone while driving, with no thought to the lives of other people on the road. Such texting drivers are not deliberately trying to harm anyone else -- they just imagine that their actions are perfectly safe (until joltingly shown otherwise).
Fortunately, few digital activists seem quite so extreme, and I never wrote that they were actively campaigning against stronger FOI laws. For example, David Eaves, one of the leaders of the open data campaign, wrote on his blog last March: "Let me pause to stress, I don't share the above to disparage FOI. Quite the opposite. It is a critical and important tool and I'm not advocating for its end."
Some observers believe that both sides need to bend a little; that is, FOI law advocates should not dismiss all data sets as useless, and digital enthusiasts in turn should work to protect and improve FOI laws. As Chad Skelton said: "FOI folks need to be less cynical, and open data folks need to be more cynical."
My main argument has been slightly refined, then, but not reversed. I do now see the value of some data sets and social media. Yet I also stand 100 per cent behind my conclusion that much (but not all) of the digital activists' campaign is inadvertently (but not deliberately) more damaging than helpful to the open government cause.
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