Lecture for the Buenos Aires University

Pick Your Battles and Make them Count


This summer, I flew to Pristina to work on an open data project. As I was in the process of looking for a flat, and all my things were still in the boxes, a piece of paper and a couple of clean shirts were the only things I packed. This piece of paper – one paper to rule them all – is what I bring to all open data consultations as a cheat sheet to tackle my two greatest challenges in opening data in the so called difficult context:

Picking Our Battles – Learning From Our Mistakes

  1. One of the most commonly used approach in advocating open data within government or to the government is to quote the numbers. Show them the money! Show the tangible benefits and they shall come. However:
  • You can only use this argument once. We often quote the EC statistics on the millions of EUR to be made by opening data. Keeping in mind that governments have a very short period of time (usually four years or even less) to prove they are useful, if such significant commercial value is not generated (and it rarely is, and can be proven in such a short time) you can not use the same argument again after they are disappointed in the lack of (fast) results.
  • Most importantly, to move on from the pragmatic to value argument –  open data is a (cultural) commons, the kind of common good whose value only grows with use, a common good that belongs to all of us and should thus be generated and preserved. Our arguments on gains thus must never be reduced to financial gains.
  • What are we telling governments is their job? Arguing commercial value as a key reason to do something for the government is a very powerful yet very dangerous strategy. It reflects the growing perception, especially in the countries of new and savage capitalism, that the only raison d’être (of a government) is to create commercial value/profit. This is wrong and dangerous. Governments should open up data because it’s their responsibility to be transparent and it’s their job to ensure public good (like data) is available and useful to all. When government whispers use commercial value and only commercial value as bait, we are indirectly setting the stage for reducing governments to commercial logic. Even more so, since one of the key issues of our time is that the government of the people, by the people, for the people is increasingly becoming government of the business, by the business, for the business we must not let open data and open government be enablers of that. 
  1. The second big mistake we have made was the inseparable connection we have created between technology and data. Much like it is often said for fire, technology is a good servant but a poor master. In the world we live in with growing uncertainties it is but too easy to escape into technophilia and believe in the magic power of technology to solve everything. Including social issues. And while coding is the new literacy and IT skills are a must for a new generation we have to be very careful to keep data as a separate category, to promote more data activism in various policy areas and not more policy areas in data activism. To not create, enable or  support closed tech communities as primary open data users.

 In my opinion there is a very simple definition of open government “ how easy and likely is it for citizens to interact with the government?” and thus technology must be a mediator and not an obstacle, it should be, much like data, open in every sense.

  1. The third mistake we made was allowing too much government focus on open data resulting in whitewashing open government with open data. Although open data is important in itself and can be used as an excellent trojan horse to put their foot in the door and sometime even subversively introduce transparency and engagement as other two pillars of open government, the result has been, too often, open data whitewashing. Governments are doing the politically less sensitive and thus less complicated open data policies and projects as their open government initiative, and thus receiving praise and promoting themselves as open, where in fact they are just sharing data. 

The Little We Get Must Count – A Cheat Sheet

Governments very often start with the supply side of the process (what do we have that we can publish) rather than the demand side. After a lot of time, money and effort they publish the data and nothing happens. This is a checklist I always carry with me to ensure we think the process through: 

  1. Write down various priorities for publishing from the demand side:
  1. what will improve transparency and access
  2. what is commercially valuable
  3. what is internally valuable for the public administration and will make it more effective
  4. what are your government’s’ policy priorities
  5. what are “sexy” datasets that will create a buzz or be used by a lot of people
  6. what are international (and donor) commitments or priorities (ex. SDGs)?
  1. Talk to stakeholders in each field, ask them what is it specifically they need. For the above list, these will be:
  1. NGOs and media
  2. Private companies
  3. Ministry of public administration and various public bodies
  4. The government (high level)
  5. Citizens, youth
  6. Multilateral organisations and donors

And now you have your open data wishlist, the open data demand. Check the overall legislation that regulates data and proceed to identify the supply. 

  1. Go through your wishlist and check for each dataset

– which institution has it

– which department

– who in that institution can “push the button” and has the legal responsibility and which political capital you have and they will listen to

– who in the institution can actually do it (IT?)

– what training and support do they need to do it

– what is the technological capacity

– what is the data inventory and what phase/format/cleanness, updating state are your datasets in

  1. According to what you have found out in step 3. set the specific steps, date and responsible person for each dataset to be published. You thus have an agenda or an action plan.
  1. Retrace your steps from supply to demand, from action plan to wishlist, thinking about who you need to involve and how, and who would benefit from the information creating your communication strategy.
  1. Make sure to always ask the question who is not sitting around the table and who has been left out of the process.

Conclusion: Stakes are Higher than Ever

A very powerful image of what happens when governments remain closed is right in front of my eyes as more and more buses filled with citizens are leaving Croatia every day. I am certain that if the governments don’t catch up with our speeding, tech demanding, and growingly diverse societies, the only tools that politicians will have left to gain votes will be populism and extremism. Thus the stakes are high and open government more relevant than ever.