July 15, 2014

Some Ideas for the Open Knowledge Festival

How can we ensure open government initiatives live up to their promise?

The movement for more open, accountable governments is gaining momentum the world over. But too often, open government initiatives are deployed without careful designs that enable them to achieve their intended objectives.

Exactly one year ago, I had the privilege to serve as the rapporteur for Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society and highlight some of the hurdles our community of practitioners must overcome to move toward the next phase of open government. This week, I’m especially excited to take that conversation further at the Open Knowledge Festival (OKFest) in Berlin, where Reboot is leading a session titled “Opening Society in Challenging Contexts”.

In particular, we’re interested in not just highlighting hurdles, but actively discussing solutions.

How to enable participation in open government initiatives from hard-to-reach citizens? How to ensure governments provide meaningful responses to citizen input? How to move beyond trial of new platforms to sustained adoption and engagement? How to look beyond the numbers to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of our work?

These are the questions we seek to answer every day at Reboot. After building the world’s first national mobile voter registration system in Libya, implementing Africa’s first sub-national open data program in the Niger Delta, and—just this last week—launching “MyVoice”, an open source mobile tool for citizens to provide feedback on public healthcare delivery in rural Nigeria, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to realize the principles of open government in practice.

One question that cuts across each of these projects (and is relevant to OKFest) is how to use data—whether those provided by an institutional body, or generated through a project—to improve government accountability?

Conversations on open government data and governance data are often dominated by data providers, academics, and donor organizations. Conspicuously underrepresented are those whose actions they seek to influence (“data users”): governments and those that influence government behavior. The underrepresentation of these user voices in open government discussions means that discourse and action are biased towards the technical dimensions of data. Technical quality is important but insufficient.

Governance is ultimately about the structures and allocations of authority and power. Influencing governance processes therefore requires shifting the distribution of authority and power. Data platforms and products that seek to change governance outcomes in a particular context must be designed to respond to the social and political dynamics in that context.

Nudging data providers to think about the sociopolitical dimensions of data platforms and products means we can put the age-old saying of “context matters” into practice. The result could be, for example, a movement away from governance rankings that create competing goals of faring well globally and making progress locally, and toward measurement that better aligns government incentives with citizen needs. (To this end, we’ve been glad to see several peer organizations uniting around the Governance Data Alliance to improve governance data quality and usage. Going forward, we look forward to contributing to this network through its working group on User Feedback.)

We’d like to connect with those interested in better understanding how open government data can be leveraged to influence governance outcomes. If you are at OKFest and find yourself asking similar questions, come find us, we’d love to hear your thoughts! As with all our work, we aim to learn and share as we go. Reboot’s session is tomorrow (Wednesday, July 16) from 12:00pm–1:00pm in Space F2 (Kulturbrauerei), where I will be discussing some of our recent experiences and asking you to show off your creative problem-solving skills.

Thanks to Janet Haven for early conversations that helped shape some of this thinking.

Image Credit: Open Knowledge Foundation

 

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