open data doesn't empower communities

Open data doesn't empower communities. I'm not saying open data is a bad thing, but we need to highlight the gap between the semantic web and social impact. Otherwise we'll continue to get swept along on a tide of technocratic enthusiasm where hope lies in 'a flood of data to create a data-literate citizenry'.

I'm inspired by the idea that nuggets of opened data could seed guerilla public services, plugging gaps left by government, but i don't see any of that in the apps list. The reasons aren't technical but psychosocial - the people and communities who could use this data to help tackle their own disadvantage and marginalisation don't have the self-confident sense of entitlement that makes for successful civic hacktivism.

So why the big push behind open data and the lack of interest in enabling communities? i think the crude answer is 'bread and circuses'. And anyway, opening up data is a technocrat friendly activity whereas empowering communities is messy and difficult. So we'll continue to be told that we can improve public services and create future economic growth by linking data rather than tackling power.

There are many missing steps between open data & an empowered citizenry that can fulfill David Cameron's claim that “People will be the masters. Politicians the servants. And that’s the way it should be”. It might be useful to contrast the histories of libraries and of Chartism - libraries are a necessary platform for an informed citizenry, but it takes the channeled anger of a social movement to focus that in to historic change.

Hackney Peace Mural

So which path leads beyond the sterility of SPARQL queries? Part of me says forget the whole thing. In a past life i helped collect data for the NHS, so i know that most government data is fake anyway (massaged beyond recognition as it passes upwards through the layered sphincters of bureaucracy). I'll keep an open mind to the results of the Open Data Impacts survey but i think we should sound the alarm that open data risks becoming (as Becky Hogge says) a kind of cargo cult.

The real struggle, as ever, is on the terrain of meanings. Who will write the narrative that we inhabit? And how much does data actually help here?

Adam Greenfield captures the issue in microcosm when comparing two local crime apps, Asborometer  and SpotCrime NYC:
"In my talks and writing, I frequently argue that 'data' in and of itself is seductive, its dynamic visualization more so, and that we need to be very careful that we don’t get drawn into real-world decisions based on such visualizations without due reflection.... The distinction is between an abstract fear on the one hand, given apparent substance by its inscription in seemingly authoritative numbers, charts and graphs — and the actual texture of street crime on the other, in all its tawdry, banal and occasionally appalling isness. You’re likely to have much more of a sense of agency when confronted with particulars than you would against inchoate percentages. And agency, as far as I’m concerned, is the name of the game".

So either we dump data for narrative, or we 'queer' the data in the full knowledge of its limitations. I'm inspired in that by the counter-cartographies collective (3Cs) who say in their report from a Chicago community mapping workshop:
"One big point of discussion was how to deal with the embedded biopolitics behind data sources like US Census data that we use in our maps — as 3Cs, we often talk about how we ‘queer’ data or statistics by pulling map stories out of them that they weren’t intended for. But data sources often come so tightly bound up with state politics, white supremacist racial policies, definitions of family structure, etc., that queering them might require more conscious work than we always put in".

Open data is not a magic recipe for righting wrongs. What will move things on is the stories that communities tell about their situations and their possible futures. If open data has a part to play in this it will be through the bootstrap empowerment of projects like savvy chavvysocial startup labs and transition towns.