During Open Government Week we’ve been thinking about what needs to be done to put citizens at the center of data initiatives in a way that gives them meaningful influence in the decisions that affect their daily lives.
At its best, data can arm people with the power to impact their communities and change their lives for the better. Take this community-drone project in Indonesia. Denied access to official government data, villagers in West Kalimantan built drones to collect aerial mapping data and used this data to expose mining companies that were causing environmental damage and violating the land rights of indigenous communities. Ultimately, the Constitutional Courts and local parliamentarians backed the villagers and the mining companies were held accountable.
Unfortunately, this moving example of a community producing and leveraging data to defend their interests is an exception — not the rule.
More often than not, citizens are passive data producers, generating and sharing data — including personal information. While the governments and firms collecting data are able to exploit their benefits, citizens are typically shut out — creating a system of data inequality.
In a recent study on the future of data use in development programs that we conducted with IDS, we argue that such data inequalities are likely to persist or even increase in the coming years, driven by the current system of data ownership, production and use.
However well-intended, development organisations are party to this growing data inequality, with many projects aggravating — or at least not actively tackling — systemic data asymmetries.
For example, some data for development projects develop ‘Superman systems’ where a single person or a small group get better access to data, often in the form of data dashboards — while instead they should be finding ways to help citizens access and understand the data that they need to engage in their communities and make important decisions affecting their lives.
Other data projects empower the already empowered. For example, one project to digitise land records in Bangalore resulted in increased corruption and led wealthy individuals and corporations to capture vast quantities of land — unintentionally making poorer citizens the victims of increased data availability rather than the beneficiaries.
Giving people agency
Many data for development projects still fall into the trap of ignoring fundamental institutional structures, culture and power, and focus more on the data and tools. The problem is that these alone do not change all-important power relations and patterns of influence that impact decision-making.
For citizens to be able to influence decision-making in government or in the private sector, they need to be able to access, use and control data relevant to them. In other words, they must be empowered by data.
To push back against data inequality, data initiatives need to be designed to work with people (as agents of change), not for them (as beneficiaries). They need to move away from Superman systems and instead give people agency through fair, agreed and equitable use and ensure that they actually benefit from any data — whether personal or government — that impacts their lives.
What empowerment looks like
While they are too few, some examples of projects demonstrating the data empowerment approach do exist. The recently concluded Making All Voices Count program and Civicus’ Datashift have documented a number of citizen-generated data initiatives ranging from service delivery in post-conflict communities to prevention of human trafficking in fragile contexts.
The Poverty Stoplight project, originating in Paraguay and replicated globally, is one of the more successful. Fundación Paraguaya, the organisation behind the project, developed a poverty assessment and planning tool that lets people conduct an evaluation of their living conditions and helps them develop strategies to escape poverty. While the data created can be aggregated centrally, it also stays with individual citizens who can use it to inform their decision-making.
From data-farmed to data-empowered
The vision of data empowerment we pursue has at least three key dimensions:
1. People have the ability to access data
When it comes to accessing government data, the open data movement has managed to make steady progress in recent years, opening up of data for everyone to freely access and use. However, as the recent Open Data Barometer shows, governments are not opening up the data people need. All too often, politically sensitive data including information on budget, spending and contracting remains locked to citizens. Prioritising disclosure based on people’s needs must become the standard approach to opening up government data.
2. People have the capacity to produce and use data relevant to them
The involvement of citizens in the use and, in some cases, even the production of data is vital. Citizens need to be regarded as active agents of change and not just as passive beneficiaries. The examples highlighted above show that empowerment can start prior to data use, with people being empowered by being involved in the production of data. Data is never neutral and those who control production have influence over what gets collected, how it’s used, and therefore its outcomes. That is why having citizens involved in the early collection stages is so important.
3. People have the freedom to exercise control over their personal data
Access, production and use need to be complemented by sufficient protection and control over one’s personal data to be fully data-empowered. Citizens need to be able to understand and determine how their data is used and the benefits derived from it.
How do we get there?
As we celebrate OpenGov Week, we must reflect on what needs to be done to achieve the vision of a data-empowered citizenry. What constitutes a data-empowered individual? What is required to move from data extraction to data empowerment? And what can open government reformers do?
We’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.