Are Open Data the solution for more accountability in developed and developing countries? As of today, the answer is a clear and resounding ‘no’, according to British journalist Jonathan Stoneman. In Does Open Data Need Journalism? (download PDF – 925 Kb), a paper for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, he concludes that “In developing countries where Open Data Portals have been launched with a fanfare – such as Kenya, and more recently Burkina Faso – there has been little uptake by coders, journalists, or citizens, and the number of fresh datasets being published drops to a trickle, and are soon well out of date. Small, apparently randomly selected datasets are soon outdated and inertia sets in”.
While “The United States is the nearest to a success story” and “In the UK the new openness is being exploited by a small minority”, with data published on the data.gov.uk website that “are frequently out of date, incomplete, or of limited new value”, Stoneman paints a bleaker picture of the situation in the Global South.
Kenya, which used to be the highest placed developing country on the Open Data Barometer, (it dropped very significantly in the past year), the Kenya’s Open Data initiative “is seen as stalling by some observers: in a blog entry on the Code4Kenya website in 2013, Nick Hargreaves said: ‘(…) There’s hardly any interaction on the portal anymore in terms of dataset suggestions and creation of visualizations. (…) When the portal was launched, what was envisioned by most was better provision and access of services and accountability of government departments. Yet 2 years after the ribbon was cut and the champagne bottles popped we seem to be stuck at the beginning. What went wrong?’“.
In Kenya, suggests Stoneman, and in other countries where open data initiatives have not taken off, it could be that open data was not something the people demanded, but was delivered as a top-down exercise. “In the developing world there is also an element of peer pressure – signing up to an Open Data initiative looks good (or, more accurately, refusing to sign up looks bad!) Hargreaves says: ‘Launching the portal should have been more than just Kenya wanting to be the new cool kid on the block, rather a push towards a transparent government that people can trust and for the government to give people better access to public services and amenities.’”
When it comes to the possible role of journalists in the analysis of data, although thousands have been learning and adopting the new skills of data journalism, they have tended to work with data obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, notes Stoneman. And although open data initiatives mushroomed in dozens of countries, “in none of the numerous manifestos and policy papers, is ‘journalism’ mentioned. The assumption is that the people will make use of their newly found access to Open Data in any way they please”.
Jonathan Stoneman’s paper concludes that “If Open Data are to be part of a new system of democratic accountability, they need to be more than a gesture of openness. (…) Openness cannot be achieved simply by publishing data. (…) Cultures do not change overnight”.