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In Jakarta, Open Environmental Data Meets Freedom of Information Law

BY David Eaves | Friday, May 10 2013

Recently something interesting happened in Jakarta. We got a glimpse of what the future of the open data movement could, and hopefully will, look like.

So what happened?

On the surface, nothing that would ordinarily send anyone’s hearts racing. There was a regional meeting of STRIPE, a group dedicated to Strengthening the Right to Information for People and the Environment. The attendees, who hailed from China, Indonesia, Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Thailand included representatives from civil society organizations, academia, governments, and international organizations.

So here is the first interesting piece. At the conclusion of the conference the group issued a document they referred to as the Jakarta Declaration in which they cited not just freedom of information laws, but also open data, as critical to tackling the region's environmental challenges.

Consider the first three clauses of the declaration (italics mine):

  1. FOI laws assist in ensuring access to environmental information by people and communities. However, information on air and water quality and pollutants released into the environment needs to be released proactively, in formats that are easily understandable by the public, without a request.
  2. Government needs to adopt legal requirements for the collection and production of environmental information.
  3. Laws that guarantee a specific right of access to environmental information without a request need to be operationalized to ensure quick and timely access to environmental information.

This for me is a window into a future where calls for open data no longer come strictly from traditional advocates. In many ways this will be a sign of success. The fact that environmentalists believe open data can help advance their cause is a validation of the ideas of open data advocates. At the same time, I’m under no illusions that every new stakeholder will be as benign or operating in the public interest as, say, environmentalists, but this is nonetheless a sign of maturity. The open data movement was only ever going to get so far if it was about a narrow group of technologists or transparency advocates that frequent the same conferences. To succeed it needs to find supporters across many groups and bodies and the Jakarta Declaration is a perfect example of a bridge being built to the environmental movement. It will be interesting to what other bridges will emerge in the coming months.

The bigger story

There is a bigger story however in the Jakarta Declaration, one I’ve tried to talk about before. It is about the dueling natures of FOI and Open Data and a second way in which the open data movement will have to mature.

Take a look at clause two again:
2. Government needs to adopt legal requirements for the collection and production of environmental information.

This is essentially asking for a legal structure for open environmental data. This is a significant shift since, in many places, open data enjoys no legal protection. In almost every jurisdiction, at any time, a government can remove and stop sharing a data set at which point it would only become available via a FOI request. In other words, barring a few legislated examples, we enjoy easy access to open data at the pleasure of the government.

This is one of the central differences between FOI and open data. FOI provides citizens with rights to access. Open data, for the most part, has simply afforded a privilege. Our colleagues in Jakarta have rightly pointed out their discomfort with this and are giving the open data community — which, as a broad tent, has always included those interested in not just transparency, but non-profit, commercial uses, scientific uses — a push to demand more.

I suspect that such a guarantee to the right to access data will require a new approach to legislation — we will not simply be able to extend FOI.

This is because there is a central the difference between a FOI and open data. FOI is a “document centric” process. It requires one to audit documents (for privacy and secrecy) that have already been produced. It is, by definition, backwards looking and non-scalable. Open data, in contrast, is a “system centric” process. With a guarantee to data you are not asking for a specific document or data at a specific moment in time, you are asking for access to all products of a system including those in the present and future, and possibly even those from the past.

This is a significant shift. There is a wonderful analogy in what happened to the accounting industry in the 1990s. Previously auditors would audit “the books.” In other words they would review and sign off on specific documents much like an FOI officer reviews a specific document for privacy or secrecy concerns. The arrival of computers and the explosion of the amount of data corporations created changed everything. Auditors could no longer review every document. Instead they started to audit “systems” assessing if all the documents it produced were valid. In other words they are determining if all past, current and future products of the system would be valid.

This required the entire field to reskill itself. Some older partners chose to retire, younger accountants saw it as an opportunity to develop a new skill and grow their business. In either case, it required new skills and a new perspective.

And this is the end game of what Jakarta Declaration means. The STRIPE delegates want entire systems — not individual documents — to be cleared as open and accessible: accountability that all past, present and future data will be open (and accurate).

To be clear, I’m not applying a hierarchy here. I’m not saying a systems approach is better than a document approach. There is little doubt that both will be required.

But the entire accountability infrastructure within governments will need to think of transparency and accountability with a whole new paradigm, one of systems not just documents. And this reskilling and new perspective will affect not just the people who have to implement these new rules, but also the solicitors, civil society organizations and access to information commissioners who oversee the government.

This will undoubtedly make some politicians and public servants still more uncomfortable than they already are, for others it will represent an opportunity to advance their careers. Regardless, it will be disruptive. But it will also help foster a better window for the public into government, and the data that informs its policies, regulators and other outputs. And that would be a good outcome.

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