Bad news for open government and open data activists everywhere. data.gov, the Obama administration flagship open data portal, is being
taken down downsized on the wake of the recent federal budget cuts. So is former White House CTO Vivek Kundra’s IT dashboard. Especially data.gov is a hard blow: that is the template, imitated by the faster-moving governments and envied by the citizens of the slower-moving ones.
What went wrong? Steve O’Keeffe summarized it like this: GIGO and overpromise. I am not qualified to judge GIGO in this case, but overpromise rings a bell. The movement is wired along Tim Berner-Lee’s “Raw Data Now”: release the datasets, civic hackers and market forces will do the rest. Decision makers in the faster-moving administrations were all too happy to comply: the number of datasets you release is an easy to monitor measure of acitivity, and it looks great on press releases.
The demand-side has been sagging. This is unsurprising: interpreting data to tell causally convincing stories is hard. Civic hackers need to know their measurement theory, probability theory, statistics, econometrics; computer prowess does not take you beyond download. We did have some good examples of data driven journalism, but most of the media ignore the data and stick to interviewing academia and gov brass when they want coverage of economic/social/environmental issues. Makes sense too: there is not enough readership for data driven journalism yet.
Worse, we were told that new ecosystem of innovative services would arise from the availability of government data, leading to growth and jobs. Hard to resist: the package of innovation, growth and jobs in one phrase is one of the very few passwords that will unlock serious funding these days, and proponents and funders alike went with it. Couple of years down the road, we do have some cool apps and some companies that use the data. We even have some jobs generated around data availability, but the numbers are unimpressive. The most I’ve heard trumpeted is 60 employees for a single company. That, too, is hardly a surprise: if your business is based on an open-access, unexhaustible resource like gov data, economic theory tells us it’s going to be hard to bake any seriouse margin into it. You tend to get undercut and outcompeted by non profits and zero-overhead college students operating out of laptops. Profit requires scarcity, not abundance – just ask music recording studios. Keefe’s post contains an interesting little fact, and that is the private business has indeed invested in data, but private and very muck locked down.
Given all this, and in the light of the
demise downsizing of data.gov, I would recommend the open gov movement to resist the temptation to promise anything we are not sure we can achieve in any scenario. Envision low-cost, low-hype operations; offer the collaboration of nonprofits and the civil society; emphasize that, while people are welcome to make money out of value-added-on-open-data services, that is not the point of the exercise. The point is increasing the transparency, accountability, and efficiency of public policy. It will be less cool, it will take us off the spotlight and the big funding grants, but it will keep the movement going, almost invulnerable to disenchantment, budget cuts and lobby capture. If I am wrong, great: another year from now, we can make a comeback and boast all the jobs open data will have created in the mean time.