Open data: by itself, the big society amounts to little more than “behave decently”

by Jon Bounds

Cablegate, while sounding like a new property development in a run-down corner of Birmingham city centre, has provoked a little bit of excitement.

For me, though, it felt like a diplomatic version of Facebook. Suddenly, the minutiae and all the slightly wrong things that we all say in private are recorded and popped onto the internet for anyone who can be bothered to search. And, if you are realistic, and not prone to Daily Mail-ish bouts of outrage, the content was not that shocking.

What has been shocking is the reaction. Both in the press – which should really be able to square Wikileaks with the principles of investigative journalism – and within governments, which are all for transparency and open data these days, aren’t they?

Transparency and open data are the new online panaceas. They are wonderful. Except, of course, when they arise from anything that is not tightly controlled by government. Releasing spending data is “forward-looking”; releasing diplomatic cables (or even details of transactions alleged within FIFA) is “not in the national interest”.

Releasing data from government and councils is obviously a good thing. It is also an almost free thing, which makes it doubly attractive. But without skilled and educated analysis, that data is of no more use than you having your suspicions confirmed about certain royal family members’ lack of diplomacy.

Information is the fuel that runs activism and development, but analysis is the engine. Without analysis, the best that you get is another pillar of doubt on which to base assumptions.

Information is the foundation of society, so data analysis and a free investigative press are vital. As a social media professional (no, I won’t explain Twitter to you just now), I worry that the boom in collaboration has been co-opted as part of the “more for less” drive of the big society. That open data is assumed to be well-analysed data.

Release all that it is safe to release. But it needs to be alongside, not at the expense of, a professional and detailed audit. Because anyone can use data to support their own ends. We see bodies, like the taxpayers’ alliance, do it all the time. As all analysis will not be fair, as not everyone is “good”, we need clear and independent audit.

George Orwell wrote a long essay about the work of Dickens. His disappointments lay not in the prose, but in the lack of a revolutionary position on how the society he described could change. Dickens, wrote Orwell, “has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘behave decently’”.

And that is the problem with the big society. It rests on “behave decently”, when we know from bitter experience that not everyone will. The other sort of transparency is clear evidence of that.

Jon Bounds is a social media consultant.

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2 Responses to “Open data: by itself, the big society amounts to little more than “behave decently””

  1. doreen ogden says:

    Big Society means ‘Here’s a few bob – now go and sort yourself out’

  2. Praguetory says:

    When it comes to the TPA, there’s no lack of ‘shoot the messenger’ criticism – which JB adds to. Whilst some of their analysis confuses cost with value, much of the actual investigative work they have done is of real value and wouldn’t be achieved by an ‘audit’.

    For example, the work they did estimating the public sector’s contribution to unions was an excellent piece of research, not readily available from any other source.

    You counsel that public bodies (presumably) should release all that is safe to release. Amen to that. Hard to reconcile that with Wikileaks sharing (and much of the media restransmitting) with us information on targets of strategic importance. If I was working at one of those sites I would be looking for a new job or extra danger money on the back of that irresponsible and pointless disclosure.

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