In Infotopia, citizens enjoy a wide range of information about the organizations upon which they rely for the satisfaction of their vital interests. The provision of that information is governed by principles of democratic transparency. Democratic transparency both extends and critiques current enthusiasms about transparency. It urges us to conceptualize information politically, as a resource to turn the behavior of large organizations in socially beneficial ways. Transparency efforts have targets, and we should think of those targets as large organizations: public and civic, but especially private and corporate. Democratic transparency consists of four principles. First, information about the operations and actions of large organizations that affect citizens’ interests should be rich, deep, and readily available to the public. Second, the amount of available information should be proportionate to the extent to which those organizations jeopardize citizens’ interests. Third, information should be organized and provided in ways that are accessible to individuals and groups that use that information. Finally, the social, political, and economic structures of society should be organized in ways that allow individuals and groups to take action based on Infotopia’s public disclosures.
By looking at the nature of data that may be disclosed by governments, Harlan Yu and David Robinson provide an analytical framework that evinces the ambiguities underlying the term “open government data.” While agreeing with their core analysis, I contend that the authors ignore the enabling conditions under which transparency may lead to accountability, notably the publicity and political agency conditions. I argue that the authors also overlook the role of participatory mechanisms as an essential element in unlocking the potential for open data to produce better government decisions and policies. Finally, I conduct an empirical analysis of the publicity and political agency conditions in countries that have launched open data efforts, highlighting the challenges associated with open data as a path to accountability.
As I wrote the article, it became even more evident to me that the challenges for open data resemble those of democracy. To be successful, both depend on free press, fair elections, and multiple avenues of citizen participation. The resemblance goes one step further: both are most needed where they are least likely to thrive. On democracy and challenging environments, political scientist Robert Dahl wrote:
Democracy, it appears, is a bit chancy. But its chances also depend on what we do ourselves. Even if we cannot count on benign forces to favor democracy, we are not mere victims of blind forces over which we have no control. With adequate understanding of what democracy requires and the will to meet its requirements, we can act to preserve and, what is more, to advance democratic ideas and practices
May Dahl’s call resonate with the open data movement.