It should be clear by now that the future of government—urban governments in particular—is intertwined with the increasing role of data (and its flow and accessibility) as a central concern in the public sphere.
“Transparent” governments, which I take as an euphemism for “not overtly corrupt,” are expected to share data with their constituents. These stems form the venerable enlightenment ideal of opposition to absolutism and its reliance on state secrecy. A democratic government needs to be accountable, and public oversight needs access to the state’s documents in order to be effective.
As current day technology makes the production, duplication and distribution of documents virtually free, there are no technical reasons why official institutions can’t make any of their internal data sources public in a timely manner.
Technical considerations, of course, are far from the only ones at play when it comes to governance. The obstacles in the way of total transparency range from legitimate ones, like privacy rights, to obviously noxious like established interests and plain fraudulence. In any case, dishonest activity will probably have to evolve (if it isn’t already) to adapt to a new scenario in which open data portals are the norm. The Open Government, as they also call public administration in the age of (big) data, is here to stay. Open data, and by extension digital technology, is clearly the tool of choice to meet its goals.
In this new scenario, transparency is not the only pillar. The motto of the White House’s Open Government Initiative is “Transparency – Participation – Collaboration.” As stated, transparency stands for “corruption in check.” But as important as accountability is, I would say that participation and collaboration are particularly interesting in this context because they hint at a new, or at least a genuinely updated, way of exercising power.
When the government invites their constituents to participate, it means that we (as the public) are expected to analyze their datasets and follow their activity on digital channels like social media; or at the very least trust that someone else will do it and let us know if something is amiss.
And finally, there’s collaboration. Under an (ideal) open government, citizens should be active participants. Not only welcome, but necessary actors in the governance model, continuously engaged in the decision making process. How will the public rise to the challenge; how can we as a collective force meet policymakers in their own arena and be all the better for it? By analyzing open data, apparently.
I hope by now the title of this post will start to make sense. To fully develop ourselves as citizens, to protect our rights and those of others, as well as carry on our duties, we will need certain technical skills. But also, and foremost, we will have to be able to apply critical thinking to our interaction with data.
Admittedly, the imperative of becoming data adepts sounds like yet another of our digitally fueled anxieties: “We should all learn to code!” Unlike people that run coding academies, I don’t think that every human being needs to be trained as a programmer (please no!). In fact, I’m not even sure that a data-centric open government is the best model we can come up with. But I believe that’s the direction in which we are heading, so there’s a case to be made about data literacy.
If the government of the future is to be shaped by the open government ideal, the citizen of the future, by definition, needs to be data savvy. And not only to claim agency in the decision making process, but also for far more basic tasks like accessing public services. Just imagine how hard it must be for any person that doesn’t read to interact with the bureaucratic interfaces of the public sector. Now picture, a few decades in the future, a world in which the acquisition, processing and sharing of large volumes of data is a routine activity of citizenship, just as common (and required) as filling out bureaucratic forms today.
If that world is indeed our future, data literacy becomes a pressing issue and not an easy one to solve. In the 21st century, universal literacy (in the traditional sense) is still an unfinished project plagued by inequality gaps. If realized to some extent, we can hope that widespread data literacy will also empower us to stop governments and corporations from amassing enormous repositories filled with our personal data with little resistance, as they do today, preventing the dystopian alternative in which we are all haunted by data.
The stakes are high: by transferring a portion of the burden of governance to the public, the (ideal) open government is also transferring power, decentralizing the capacity to make changes, thus advancing towards a true democracy. But in order to achieve such a lofty goal, the capacity to deal with all these promising open data must be truly universal.