Open Government Data: The Book

By Joshua Tauberer. Second Edition: 2014.
Also available as a Paperback and for Kindle. Tweet me at @JoshData.

The Bhoomi Program and Digital Divides

There is plenty of evidence both academic and anecdotal that government information can promote a good government. Each scandalous resignation is a testament to the speed with which information in the hands of the public can enforce accountability. But government transparency programs can also have unintended consequences.

Michael Gurstein wrote in a blog post1 about the difference between opportunity and the ramifications of the actual uses of open government data. Gurstein pointed out that not all data yields an “effective use” of the data, and that is especially the case when not all individuals have an equal opportunity.

One studied case was the 2001 digitization of land ownership records in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The digitization project was called the Bhoomi program. The purpose of the program was to improve efficiency and thus facilitate trade and investment. It was also intended to reduce bribery, for instance, by using software to enforce first-come-first-served policies. But what was the result?

On the one hand, a large database of land titles, soil type, and crop use patterns was created. The records became an important part of how landowners could obtain loans and how farmers would buy seeds and fertilizer. This probably means the information made these markets more efficient. On the other hand, access to electronic records was slower than access to physical records on account of computer malfunction and power outages. Bribery reportedly increased because the number of administrators in the Bhoomi system was much greater than in the previous system (consider all of the new IT infrastructure). New conceptual complexities in the Bhoomi system put poorer individuals at a disadvantage, since they could less afford expediters that understand the system. And by shoe-horning complex legal situations into simplified computer forms, uncommon situations often encountered by the poor were marginalized out of existence. A 2007 report on the subject summarized the consequences of the Bhoomi program:

The main findings, at two levels, contrast conventional wisdom. First the digitization of land records led to increased corruption, much more bribes and substantially increased time taken for land transactions. At another level, it facilitated very large players in the land markets to capture vast quantities of land at a time when Bangalore experiences a boom in the land market.2

While bribery and electrical power losses are not much of an issue in the United States, the question of equal opportunity is still relevant. Gurstein later called attention to the 70% of individuals world-wide who do not have Internet access, the 80% who do not own a computer, and the 25% who are illiterate, all of whom could not access open government data and open government websites. The result is that new online tools for government accountability are “simply a means to further enable/empower those already well provided by society with the means to influence government,” he wrote.3

Clay Shirky has given equal opportunity an interesting twist. Typically, equal opportunity is based on something we think is out of the control of the individual: money, race, disability, social connections. That gives equal opportunity a moral grounding. But Shirky wrote, “If transparency lets all interest groups make use of improved information, then we would expect that the better organized interests to make better use of any new transparency.” In other words, we need to be careful not only of imbalances of accessibility to the information itself but also to imbalances in social infrastructure and political climate that affect collective action. “This is not to say that transparency is never good; it is to say that it isn’t always good, and that the negative effects result from imbalances in the will to collective action, not just access to information,” Shirky wrote.4

Dana Boyd and Kate Crawford (2011)5 warn of new digital divides. When Big Data is housed in private databases, only those with the financial means to buy access — i.e. top-tier universities — will be able to study it. And of course raw data is not something everyone can use. “Wrangling APIs, scraping and analyzing big swathes of data is a skill set generally restricted to those with a computational background,” they wrote. For Boyd and Crawford, Big Data primarily benefits the elite.

But a digital divide is no reason not to publish open government data, for the same reason that illiteracy is not a reason not to publish books. Books have been a boon for everyone, even if not everyone can read them. And the fact that not everyone can fly to D.C. to attend a presidential press conference doesn’t mean journalists should not cover the White House. Direct access by some, especially journalists, is the first step to indirect access for many more.

What made the Bhoomi program so susceptible to bribery was that it was a government service more than it was a publication of open government data: Land titles need frequent correcting and updating, and it is through the interaction with government officials that bribes arose. And it seems that at least part of the reason why Bhoomi records were so useful to those with relative power was because of the new complexities of the larger system in which the records themselves were just a part. The imbalance of opportunity was created in the land management policy at least as much as it was created in the digitization itself.

And even with a digital divide, the most important uses of government data are performed by mediators — especially including journalists — who can create off-line consequences of on-line data. Traditional newspapers do this directly simply by printing their stories off their computers. But all forms of mediation, even websites, can raise an issue into social awareness beyond the confines of those who might have accessed the original bytes. That’s not to say that open government data can’t have unintended consequences, just that unequal access to the actual data isn’t likely to be a cause of it.

What is likely to cause unintended consequences is when data is of unequal relevance to different sectors of the public. Although data from the Securities and Exchange Commission has some role to play in smoothing out the entire economy, which is good for everyone, it clearly has only direct relevance to investors, and more so to the higher-stakes investors.

Instead, the important questions are what data is made open and who is likely to take advantage of it, and how the data is made open so that it can be transformed into civic capital.

  1. Michael Gurstein. September 2, 2010. Open Data: Empowering the Empowered or Effective Data Use for Everyone?

  2. Solomon Benjamin, R. Bhuvaneswari, P. Rajan, and Manjunath. 2007. Bhoomi: `E-Governance’, Or, An Anti-Politics Machine Necessary to Globalize Bangalore? CASUM-m Working Paper.

  3. Michael Gurstein. June 20, 2011. Open Data – Louder Voices? Open Knowledge Foundation Blog.

  4., emphasis his

  5. Dana Boyd and Kate Crawford. September 21, 2011. Six Provocations for Big Data. Presented at Oxford Internet Institute’s “A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society.”