Which comes first: open data or open government?

Global Integrity

Though not a new debate, it’s worth revisiting the core arguments around what can or should come first: open data or open government? I was jolted into this discussion again after haphazardly glancing at the World Bank-sponsored “crowd sourcing” process to stimulate ideas for how to make a Smart Rwanda (yes, you can groan a little bit, but honestly the Rwandan government is so good at understanding what hipster labels resonate with donors; kudos, Kigali!):

“The Rwandan Ministry of Youth and ICT wants your suggestions and ideas. They have a vision for a Smart Rwanda where the relevant information and services that Rwandans need are always at their fingertips. This could be transformative – choose one of the 10 target areas to share your ideas.”

Our brilliant colleague Justin Arenstein, one of the most important innovators in Africa around open data and data journalism, posted this idea:

Establish a 2yr “Code for Rwanda” pilot programme doing three things: 1.) Embeds technologists and open data strategists into CSOs, media & gov 2.) Establishes a ‘Citizen Technology Lab’ 3.) Builds open data + “open knowledge” infrastructure + tools

To which I responded on Twitter:

@szvila @WorldBank @justinarenstein Justin u serious about Code 4 Rwanda?That merits a deeper public discussion.

To which Justin replied:

@Integrilicious CfAfrica model different to US one. It embeds technologists in CSOs & media, to create #opendata demand @szvila @WorldBank

Good stuff.

My concern with pushing open data or CfRwanda-type programs in a country like Rwanda is not that Africa can’t handle open data or that all countries need to follow a Western model for open data and embedding technology in government. It’s that in countries struggling with deep, structural governance issues open data and e-government efforts can be an easy distraction and an excuse to ignore or postpone the really hard, fundamental governance and political challenges. As I’ve written before in “The Case Against Open Data in Yemen:”

Open data initiatives bring with them opportunity costs. Yemen can’t afford and won’t have the local talent to build a quality open data portal/platform on its own, so foreign donors would be asked to pick up the tab. If donors commit to open data, what else will they be distracted from? Overhauling the country’s telecom infrastructure? Building next-generation 4G mobile service? Capacity building of the nearly non-existent independent media sector? Prioritizing open data at the expense of other, potentially more pressing, reform efforts is a non-trivial decision…Could open data efforts make a contribution in Yemen? Maybe. Are they incredibly tricky and laden with difficult trade-offs in a post-conflict, low-income context? Definitely. A sober cost-benefits approach to evaluating the appropriateness of open data in Yemen seems the right way to answer those questions.

The most compelling counter-argument to my pessimism is that open data is a sort of gateway drug to broader civic engagement and political reform. Get folks hooked on open data, the argument goes, and they’ll soon want to step up to the harder drugs of competitive multiparty politics, institutional reform, and professionalization of the civil service. This argument has been most eloquently advanced by Jeremy Weinstein (disclosure: serves on the Global Integrity board) and Joshua Goldstein in, “The Benefits of a Big Tent.” It’s well worth the read.

But where the “Big Tent” approach falls short is being able to provide us with concrete evidence that, well, it actually works. It’s more aspirational (despite being perfectly intellectually sound) than proven. The most real-time experiment is occurring in Kenya, where we know things are hit-or-miss at best.

Where do you come down on this debate? Chime in with some comments below!

Nathaniel Heller

–Photo cortesy of Wikipedia Commons. 

Global Integrity
Global Integrity

2 comments on “Which comes first: open data or open government?

  • Susannah VIla says:

    If what we want from open data projects is for them to serve as gateways to civic engagement, then why not start with the community organizing and relationship building instead of starting with data wrangling? For example, instead of embedding technologists in CSOs and media outlets to create portals that nobody will use, (ahem, internet penetration is like 6% in Rwanda), a Code for Rwanda could embed community organizers into CSOs and government agencies. These people would find political will and citizen incentives for doing things that will improve responsiveness, trust and communication between people and their government. Then you’d be able to plug the open data portal into the networks of engaged citizens that you just created.

  • Agree. And pretty sure embedding community organizers into Rwandan agencies ‘aint going to happen any time soon 🙂

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