Technology is the easy part of building an open society. Deal with the human side of the problem is much tougher.
Social enterprise expert Kate Beecroft moderated a panel at Open Source Open Society looking at how open data can lead to a more open style of government.
Laura O’Connell Rapira, campaigns director at ActionStation, says she hasn’t seen any examples of how this culture of openness might work at a national level, but witnessed the effect of how Vancouver council had an online project allowing people to make suggestions. She says this has brought about cultural changes.
Bene Anderson who works for New Zealand’s Department of Internal Affairs says: “There’s more to open government than being able to access data”.
GitHub head of open government Ben Balter says open source is all about communities: “It’s more than accessibility, it’s about working together”. He made a pitch for GitHub in this context describing it as a “social network for developers, if you subscribe to GitHub you become part of the community”.
Silverstripe’s Cam Findlay says: “I’d love to see government policy creation done out in the open. That requires having the information out there in the first place.”
Findlay talks of two types of openness: reflective and participatory. Participatory openness is when people are encouraged to speak out, to voice an opinion. That’s good, but it means nothing if those voices are not being heard.
Reflective openness is when organisations take time to listen, then understand what is said. For anything to be really open, both types of openness are necessary.
So should a government open source everything?
Anderson thinks not. He says only things that benefit society should be opened up.
That leaves the question of who gets to decide what data may or may not benefit society. And it’s not always immediately obvious which data has value to people outside government. In some cases that doesn’t become clear until the data is out in the open.
Anderson goes on to talk about the need for information to be classified on the amount of damage it can do. Anything that can harm businesses or people needs to be kept out of sight — presumably that doesn’t apply when businesses or people are harming others.
Some information should be kept out of public view. Balter points out, it might not be a good idea for the US government to make the nuclear missile launch codes publicly available. On the other hand, he says you can’t have a firewall with a cold war style regime on the inside and publicly available information outside the firewall.