The Internet opens up unprecedented possibilities for a digital data commons. According to the Open Definition, open data is data that “anyone can freely access, use, modify, and share for any purpose (subject, at most, to requirements that preserve provenance and openness).” However, open data on its own is not enough, it needs to be easily accessible to users for effective use.
Why data literacy matters
Criticisms of the open government data movement have found that it does not necessarily improve access to information. As there is no support for intellectual accessibility, citizens without the skills or training to interpret datasets will not be able to make sense of the data. This might actually reinforce existing inequalities in access to information, something that Michael Gurstein refers to as the “data divide”. It is necessary to question who actually benefits from open data. The lack of digital literacy, technical literacy to interpret datasets, and basic reading literacy are serious barriers to accessing government data.
The Bhoomi project
For equality and justice to be attained in information systems, data cannot be seen as technologically neutral. There is social and economic privilege embedded in data sets. Open data and the potential of a big data commons can go a long way in improving governance systems, as long as concerns of data protection and privacy are addressed. At the same time, a push must be made for data literacy programs, and initiatives that encourage community production and ownership of data, to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a few private players and governments.
Alternative Data Ownership Models
For information equality to prevail, there need to be alternative community-owned data systems that can challenge the controls private players exert over data. For example, aggregated agricultural data (collected from privately owned farm machinery) is used by companies to market products and services to farmers. Monsanto’s acquisition of Climate Corp (a data and analytics firm) is an indicator of the value of economic value that can be extracted from data. However, community alternatives do exist. the United States, there is a company called Farmobile which organises farm data for analysis, and plans to let farmers generate revenue from their own data by allowing them to decide what information they are willing to disseminate to interested data buyers.
Open data in India
In India, the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, 2012 does emphasize the need for proactive disclosure of all publicly funded information by government departments. An open data portal, data.gov.in, was set up in 2012 to fulfill this need, and to promote data sharing to bridge the information gap between government and citizens. The Internet is integral in fulfilling the need for proactive disclosure, as web publishing is the most efficient method of sharing relevant government data which is easily accessible to citizens.
In relation to open government data, we can see clear links to the right to information, which has established access to government information as a fundamental right in India. However, the proactive disclosure section of the RTI Act has not been implemented satisfactorily, more than ten years after the law was passed.