The conceit of open and opening (government) data: Lessons from an emerging model of techno-democracy

Mauricio Delfin

The terms “open data” and “open government” have received increased international attention since US President Barack Obama signed a Memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government” the first day he took office in 2009. At the global level (and also promoted by the US) the “Open Government Partnership” (OGP) —an international platform of 62 countries where government and civil society work together to develop and implement government reforms— has positioned itself as one of the most ambitious global movements for transparency.

This paper explores the role open data plays as a socio-technical construct in this emerging model of open government. I will argue that the conceit of open data as a technical object lays in its supposedly apolitical configuration and apparent ontological stability, and that the current condition of open data entails the cultural homogenization of the citizen, an adherence to a particular mode of technological labor, and conformity to a specific model of democracy in which controversy, antagonism and issues of inequality are often underestimated.

Using the OGP process as a case study and a number of interviews with key actors engaged with initiatives that deal with open data, hackatons and “civic-hackers” in the Americas, this paper explores the configuration of an emerging narrative of techno-democracy with specific geopolitical implications for societies in the Global South. A central argument is that contemporary regimes of open data are often part of those regimes of predictability Arjun Appadurai sees in tectonic friction with regimes of possibility. I propose that an excessive emphasis on open data and its standards moves our attention away from a critical understanding of the condition of the citizen today and a political economy of information that equates access with freedom. Concentrating in an apolitical conception of open and opening data may keep us from seeking expanded critical narratives that question who can actually do things with open data today, and why.

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Mauricio Delfin received a Joint Honors in Anthropology and International Development Studies from McGill University, and an MA in Media, Culture, and Communication from NYU. He has extensive experience in new media production and arts management. His current work combines research on ICTs with activism and advocacy in cultural policy issues in Latin America. He is interested in the role of digital technologies in the advancement of democracy and the role of cultural policies in social development. As Associate Researcher for the Trauma and Global Health Program at McGill University he worked on various projects that studied violence and global health. Founder and director of the Peruvian National Summit of Culture and of, an organization that promotes new technologies for civic engagement in cultural policies. Research Associate for Tándem GCD, a cultural policy think-tank, and R&D Strategist for La Factura, an award-winning civic software company. He is a Doctoral student in Communication Studies at McGill University.