Home How Open Data is Used Against the Poor

How Open Data is Used Against the Poor

Open data is all the rage these days, but is simply opening up aggregate public information for outside analysis enough to change the world for the better? A new article by Mike Gurstein, Editor of the influential Journal of Community Informatics, argues that open data may merely make the rich richer and the poor poorer, unless the “open access” paradigm is extended with what he calls “effective use.”

Here at ReadWriteWeb, we often write about the potential for innovation created by aggregate online and public data. Leading technology publisher Tim O’Reilly is a big, open data proponent as well (his newest conference is all about big data), but he called Gurstein’s article a “sobering account of how open data is used against the poor…” “We need to think deeply about the future,” O’Reilly said this afternoon.

Here’s a long excerpt from Gurstein’s post, Open Data: Empowering the Empowered or Effective Data Use for Everyone?

A very interesting and well-documented example of this empowering of the empowered can be found in the work of Solly Benjamin and his colleagues looking at the impact of the digitization of land records in Bangalore. Their findings were that newly available access to land ownership and title information in Bangalore was primarily being put to use by middle and upper income people and by corporations to gain ownership of land from the marginalized and the poor. The newly digitized and openly accessible data allowed the well-to-do to take the information provided and use that as the basis for instructions to land surveyors and lawyers and others to challenge titles, exploit gaps in title, take advantage of mistakes in documentation, identify opportunities and targets for bribery, among others. They were able to directly translate their enhanced access to the information along with their already available access to capital and professional skills into unequal contests around land titles, court actions, offers of purchase and so on for self-benefit and to further marginalize those already marginalized.

Certainly the newly digitized information was ‘accessible’ to all on an equal basis but the availability of resources to translate that ‘access’ into a beneficial ‘effective use’ was directly proportional to the already existing resources available to those to whom the access was being provided. The old story about the pauper and the millionaire having equal opportunity to purchase a printing press as a means to promote their interests can be seen as holding equally here as in the 19th century.

Benjamin’s meticulously documented paper shows how the digitization and related digital access to land title records in Bangalore had the direct effect of shifting power and wealth to those with the financial resources and skills to use this information in self-interested ways. This is not to suggest that processes of computerization inevitably lead to such outcomes but rather to say that in the absence of efforts to equalize the playing field with respect to enabling opportunities for the use of newly available data, the end result may be increased social divides rather than reduced ones particularly with respect to the already poor and marginalized.

“…digitization and related digital access to land title records in Bangalore had the direct effect of shifting power and wealth to those with the financial resources and skills to use this information in self-interested ways.

As well, this is not to argue against ‘open data’ which in fact is a very significant advance and support to broad-based democratic action and empowerment but rather to argue that in the absence of specific efforts to ensure the widest possible availability of the pre-requisites for ‘effective use’ the outcome of ‘open data’ may be quite the opposite to that which is anticipated (and presumably desired) by its strongest proponents.

An ‘effective use’ approach to open data would thus be one that ensured that opportunities and resources for translating this open data into useful outcomes would be available (and adapted) for the widest possible range of users.

Thus, to ensure the effective use of open data a range of considerations needs to be included in the open data process and as elements in the open data movement including such factors as the cost and availability of Internet access, the language in which the data is presented, the technical or professional requirements for interpreting and making use of the data, the availability of training in data use and visualization, among others.

In a sector of the economy as dominated by political Libertarianism as web technology is, the idea that opening up platforms of data for innovation needs to include consideration of the unequal circumstances of potential consumers of that data is unlikely to be a popular argument. We tend to believe that the web and data are meritocracies, where anyone with enough motivation can create value and the tide will rise, raising all ships.

Maybe that’s not the case, though. Maybe data as a platform needs to be presented to society with the same care that technical providers of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) take in serving up their connection to a would-be community of independent developers. You want people to use your data? Then pay attention to what they need. Similarly, if you want all parts of society to benefit from the opening of public data, then simply opening it up and allowing the most ferociously competitive people in society to grab a hold of it may not be a good way to impact the world positively.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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