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Simon Whitehouse

I agree with this and it is something that Digital Birmingham is particularly interested in addressing. Our Timely Information for Citizens project included social media surgeries and data mashing hack events, but we didn’t have a cross-over of attendees between those separate activities.
We are hoping to now develop a data visualisation tool which shows the issues the public are contacting the council about alongside a forum or other conversational web tool that enables people to discuss the meaning behind the visualisation of the data.
I expect this will be one of many similar applications that public sector organisations will start to build in the next few years as we start to focus on the purposeful activity we can achieve with OGD.

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This section returns to the four arguments for releasing OGD noted at the start of this study. These were that OGD release will play a role in:

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  • Promoting transparency and accountability
  • Empowering citizens to drive public sector reform
  • Releasing the economic and social value of information
  • Putting Britain at the leading edge of semantic web developments.
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Assessing the magnitude of impact that OGD can have in these respects is beyond the scope of this study. However, a number of modest remarks can be made from the evidence-base presented in §4 regarding democratic and public sector reform implications of OGD use.

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5.1. Changing gatekeeping

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OGD users have been exploring how scrutiny can be crowd-sourced, and have been using data to check state information and policies. The availability of OGD removes one aspect of both the state (and mainstream media’s) gatekeeping power (Castells 2009), although other socio-economic structures may constrain the extent to which new actors can widely advance their alternative interpretations of data. With both high-profile (COINS) and niche (School Revenue Balance) datasets this study has seen individuals able to create their own interpretations of government data, and to contribute those interpretations to spaces of online debate.

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However, where OGD has allowed a ‘revolution in the middle’ (Bimber 2003), with new actors using data to enter public debate, those actors are, at present, technically skilled, as well as issue-interested, and thus far the engagement to be observed is data-aware individuals engaging with issues, rather than conventional issue-based civil society institutions engaging with OGD. Notions of communicative governance (§2.4.2) suggest OGD should allow citizens to debate the meaning of data with the state. Within the core network of actors around debate was occurring, but the debate is frequently dominated by technical and data-standard type concerns. Widespread capacity within the state to engage with debate around meanings of data, and to use data as the starting point for democratic dialogue is yet to develop.

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5.2. Empowering individuals

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Exploring OGD can give individuals greater understanding of the state, and direct access to facts and information can empower individuals in their interactions with the state – addressing the information inequalities that concerned Dahl (2000). There is a risk that a focus on data-for-developers, and expectation that all data will be accessed through online interfaces can lead to a neglect of mechanisms for direct OGD access, although infrastructures and principles of data publishing could be developed to ensure all citizens have good opportunities to go direct to a trusted data source to get the detailed and granular information they need.

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In-so-far-as new mediators of government information, such as UKSchoolMap and Schooloscope give information on topics over which citizen-consumers have genuine choice, then these can also empower individuals through market-mechanisms. It is notable though that both market and non-market models of empowerment described in this section are individual centred: and how OGD feeds into models of collective empowerment is unclear from the instances considered in this study. Attentiveness to Bowker (2000) and Scott’s (1998) concern that schemas of data collection can impact its future use, is warranted in this context, particularly if geographies of data collection (wards, super-output-areas etc.) do not match geographies of civic mobilization.

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5.3. Innovation and reform

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The OGD related drivers for public sector reform evident so far appear to come not from citizen engagement with the planning process, but from OGD-enabled innovation and the use by third-parties (often commercial or social enterprises) of OGD to provide planning support and new services to the state. OGD can create a space for innovation outside the bureaucracy, and at present, many OGD users are motivated to pursue innovative development on a speculative basis – either for personal learning, or potential reward in terms of recognition, profits or patronage. How far this innovation can move from dealing directly in predominantly digital and informational services to impact upon wider areas of public sector reform is yet to be seen, and certain issues may arise about the accountability gains or losses that result if OGD drives a transfer of public functions to private enterprise. However, particularly given the economic focus of EU PSI agendas, it is within the entrepreneurial use of state-centric OGD that some of the most significant implications for public sector reform are likely to be.

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5.4. Digitized government: equitable architectures?

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In section 4.1 it was suggested that the motivational driver shared by many OGD users of ‘digitizing government’, in part a response to a critical assessment of past government ICT initiatives (Dunleavy et al. 2006), has many of the hallmarks of a ‘Computerization Movement’, focused on problem-solving via application of technology to a situation, and noting no limitations of appropriate digitization. Via the same routes noted for general innovation above, OGD can support the development of new modular digital infrastructures around government data, and many of the processes of OGD use noted in §4.2 do adopt a very modular approach, providing components of an OGD infrastructure for others to build on. However, Hood and Margetts (2007), drawing on Dunlop and Kling (1991), note that visions of technology-driven change often suppose situations in which “conflict, politics and adversarial legalism are unknown or at least unimportant” (p. 179). There is a risk that many claims about the potential implications of digitized government via OGD ignore, and thus do not address and seek to tackle, key constraints to the equitable distribution of benefits (and power) that can be created/shared through OGD use. Unequal distributions of skills, social capital, and time have a big impact on who is making use of OGD, and the reach they can have with OGD use. Similarly, some problems remain difficult to solve, even with (and sometimes because of) government datasets, and the appropriate response to such problems may be social rather than technological.

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