How Far Should Governments Open Up?

Beth Noveck reconfigures governance for the 21st Century.

Beth Simone Noveck, former (and the first) deputy chief technology officer of the United States, is an attorney and law professor who works to shape governance in the Internet age. Noveck, who presented at TEDGlobal, advises governments on effectively using technology to build transparency, participation, and collaboration. Noveck recently spoke with Hannah Piercey.

HP: How do you define “radical openness” in respect to your work?

Beth NoveckFor me, it refers to the move that we must make from hierarchical, centralized, concentrated, enclosed institutions, whether they’re government or corporations, to open, collaborative, transparent organizations. If we want be effective in the way that we work, we have to do so in an open way. It’s not only about shifting the default on data publication from closed to open but about shifting the default of how we make decisions and how we spend money.

HP: What would a radically open data ecosystem look like?

BN: If we believe in the importance of creating more participatory and open ways of working, deciding, and doing then we need radically open data in order to inform more distributed and open decision-making. In the old model of how we regulated, governments would order companies whether or not to do something. Now we have new techniques of combining law, policy, and open data to get companies to become more transparent. This enables other people to build apps and visualizations on top of that data to empower consumers to make more informed decisions. It’s a new way of affecting human behavior, affecting change, and creating accountability.

HP: Data is often siloed in traditional, hierarchical institutions where it seems like it would be challenging to effectively cultivate an open ethos. Do you believe it’s feasible to “hack” our current institutions or will there need to be a wider cultural shift?

BN: I think the proof is in the doing. The more that we can open up data and use that data in new ways to solve problems and improve the quality of life for people, the more strongly we can make the case that we ought to have more open data. It’s neither free nor easy to move from a world of paper-based information to open, digital, and computable data. That’s not always because of political impediments or resistance to transparency. It’s simply costly. It’s hard to go from often 19th century processes designed for moving paper through complex, labyrinthine bureaucracies to e-filing documents, publishing them in a computable form, making bulk data available, updating and cleaning that data to make it usable for people, making people aware of that data, and encouraging them to use it to good ends. The more we can do it and demonstrate value, the more we can make the case that it’s worth the cost.

HP: While data transparency is crucial, in many ways it is only a starting point. What needs to happen to information to make it accessible on a wide-scale? How do you connect with people using data? 

BN: Data by itself really matters very little. Data acts as a conversation starter. It’s an impetus for getting people together to solve problems and develop new tools using information. Not everybody is a data geek, not everybody can build an app or is interested in building an app. What we’re going to need to do is first train many more data-savvy people and technically savvy people to use and work with data.

We also need to develop a flourishing media culture that knows how to turn data into stories. Stories are, as someone once wrote, the last mile of data. It’s not about a dataset or a table on an excel spreadsheet. It’s about the excel spreadsheet telling a story about why one community is healthier and has better life expectancy than another community. It’s the stories we can tell by mashing up data and looking across entities that allows us to gain real insights into the problems we face and how we can change them.

HP: What inspiration do you draw from digital culture and how does that translate to open data?

BN: If we hadn’t started with a movement to free access to culture, I don’t think we would have fully understood the value of institutions moving toward more open data and open ways of decision-making. We needed to have Wikipedia first. The example of millions of people collaborating on writing an encyclopedia, once that province of experts and scientists, demonstrates that it’s possible for people outside the traditional structures of academics and governmental institutions to do great things together.

One of the typical refrains you often hear from incumbents in response to opening up data is, “Who’s possibly interested in this information besides us? Who could possibly understand the data about nonprofits or healthcare or green markets better than we could?” This is not just in government. It’s often from the interest groups and civil society groups that work in a particular area. Then, when you open it up, it turns out there’s a college student who is passionate about the topic and has the wherewithal, time, and enthusiasm to make an app that makes the data come alive and that turns it into a useful tool for a much wider arena of people.

HP: What is an opportunity for innovation in your field created by disseminating the control of data?

BN: I’m compelled by the argument that when you create open data, you create opportunities for people to collaborate and create institutions that are both more democratic and more effective. When you put out data it creates a concrete opportunity for people to engage. One of the few ways we have of getting involved is voting which is a rather anemic, pathetic way for us to engage, especially in this social media climate, in what is supposed to be a democracy. Open data creates a way for people to get involved. It doesn’t mean that everybody can do it or that everybody can engage but it creates a way for many more ordinary, nonprofessional people to play a role in doing public service, participating in governance, and the life of democracy.

HP: What are the recent projects or developments that you are most excited about?

BN: I’m really excited about the opportunities that new technologies create to redesign or rethink our democracy. We tend to take our democracy as a something handed down to us from Greek or Roman times but our democratic institutions are rather recent. We have an 18th century model of representatives and voting and a 19th century model of bureaucracy. The good news about this is they can be reconfigured and improved for the 21st century. Whether it’s an open data government policy or the open grants policy, where all research funded by government money must be made public, that’s now become the rule in the UK. We have the beginnings of not only openness in data but openness in the way that we work. It’s still a long way but I’m really excited about the possibility. Not simply for transparency and openness as a philosophical ideal but as a practice made possible by technology.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson, courtesy of TED
Illustration by Christian Egea, senior interaction designer at frog

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Radical Openness

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