As open data is on the rise, here in France and around the world, we decided to ask a few questions of Evelyn Ruppert, a senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College, of the University of London, and a specialist on the question of data. The open data policy operated by the British government since 2010 has not allowed the public authority to recover the trust it had lost: in its present form, the State will never unveil all that it holds. However, in an effort to make the State more transparent, information is provided and reused through digital means. Yet, this favors the emergence of a new class of specialists, necessary intermediaries between the data and the public.
Cet article existe également en français : L'open data est-il un leurre politique ?
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MyScienceWork: The Wikileaks revelations and the defection of Edward Snowden are actual reminders that government data with a real political impact is usually stolen from governments. What does this tell us about how transparency is done by the governments?
Evelyn Ruppert: It shows that there is a lot of other data that governments don't make available. There are decisions and boundaries on what is released and what isn't. What we get from governments is a mere fraction of what is available and possible. It only further advances the argument I make that this whole attention to transparency is really generative of more distrust. Thinking that the answer lies in just providing more data is problematic.
Why do we need a culture of data?
A culture of data that understands data is not given and natural, but made. It's made and it's done. How it is made and how it is done being as important as the data itself.
“Data is made and done. How it is made and how it is done being as important as the data itself.”
The French government will soon appoint its first Chief Data Officer. This CDO will be a man or a woman with a lot of power, able to request data from different government services. What do you think about that?
I think that part of the data requested should be about how that data was made and done, and the very practices and decisions that went into how it was recorded, and organized. This is what we call metadata, it's data about the data.
Like another dimension for data?
Yes, another dimension that is really about its making. You need to have it, otherwise data is treated as natural and raw. There is a good example of that here in the UK: there has been a lot of controversy about crime statistics, and how they are collected and recorded. Studies have found that police officers do it in a variety of different ways, such that from one police authority to another, they're not comparable, because they make decisions differently about what to record and how to record it. So when you compare their statistics, you have to have that information in order to understand what it is you're comparing.
On the official open data website for France, users are warned that “The data.gouv.fr platform promotes the documentation, reliability and enhancement of data, as well as the identification of new correlations rather than definitive or partisan interpretations.” This suggests that a piece of data can also be neutral?
Yes, that's what we call “raw data”. It's natural, it's not political, it's not normative. So, you can't question it, there's no politics there then, it's just given. That's what I think we should question.
“That's what we call raw data. It's natural, it's not political, it's not normative. So, you can't question it, there's no politics.”
The platform allows anyone to submit a set of data, it's a participative method. There are also tools for easy use of the data. But “anyone” is not “everyone”. There is a lot of political talk over the concept of the digital divide, how citizens are not equipped equally to participate in the digital democracy. What is your take on this issue?
The problem with that argument is that it assumes that people have skills and capacities that can be measured independently from their interactions with specific tools and technologies. There are subjects with skills that are preformed, prior to the technology, and similar to it in the sense that they are already constituted. As we say in sociology and philosophy, they are ontologically separate. However, others suggest that we have to think of how they constitute each other. For example, if you have a technology that oversimplifies an issue or a concept technically, then the person who interacts with it becomes a subject that's formed by that very simplified version. They come into interaction with it and that starts to organize their capacities and abilities in a particular way.
So if digital tools are too easy to use, people don't develop particular skills?
Complexity becomes something that is put aside and, instead, what matters is that the person just clicks around and finds something, and then you've dealt with the digital divide. But I think the divide is much more complicated in terms of how people are technically enabled, and come to engage with technology. If you take a look at any study of open government data, very few general public (if I can use that term) are out there downloading data. Most of them are getting at it through apps, interfaces and platforms that are configured and organized by software developers and infomediaries as we call them. They sometimes put them into very simple infographics that people can play with; in doing so, they are creating what I call “subjects”, who understand data through visualizations and very simple infographics.
These infomediaries (or consultocracy, other have used) are various people that are really important intermediaries between the data that the government's releasing and the various publics that are then engaging with the data. It's not just the government making itself transparent. There's a whole other set of actors who are organizing our attention in particular ways, whether it's oversimplified, not complexified enough, or just through visuals. There's a whole layer in between the data and the publics that needs to be interrogated because they are also putting importance on certain ways of viewing what's to be highlighted, what's to be compared, how it is analyzed. There's a whole other set of decisions happening in that layer that really matter.
“It's not just the government making itself transparent. There's a whole other set of actors who are organizing our attention in particular ways.”
How is this elite different from the regular, traditional technocrats who have been involved in the workings of the state so far? Do they have particular interests, are they even physically close to the political power?
We could say the previous kind of technocrat or expert that existed before was the one who did audits on governments. They basically report on the performance and provide the public with their evaluation. Instead of that, they now help the public track and understand the performance for themselves, giving the appearance that we are all auditors, that suddenly the technocratic, bureaucratic, expert role is lessened and that we are now more experts. However, I think that it has remade the relationship in a new way. It makes it appear that it's a more democratic form because we can do our own analysis, yet that analysis is very much organized and configured by another set of experts, who we rely on, and who organize things in particular ways so that what we see and experience in the data is also being evaluated and organized in a particular way.We don't do away with it. We just give it to a different set of experts who now we still rely on.
But these experts are sometimes more trusted by the public, they don't necessarily have any interest in giving their point of view, they sometimes don't have any financial interest, either.
That is one possibility, and I guess the critical answer is that it does not mean that the work they do and the way that they do it should not also be part of a little bit of critical thought and awareness. There are lots of non-profit organizations that also do stuff and create free apps with government data and then there are moneymaking ones. So there's a variety of different ways it’s happening but regardless of the organization, the way that they use the data and organize it matters in the decisions they take, and that's what should be really clear and also made transparent. It shouldn’t be treated as though what they're doing is not based on certain priorities, values and judgments. They provide a particular version, but there are other ones possible. So what is this version based on, what is it elevating and making important and bringing our attention to?
These arguments are developed in "Doing the transparent state, open government data as performance indicators" by Evelyn Ruppert. This is a chapter from the upcoming collective book A World of Indicators: The making of governmental knowledge through quantification. R. Rottenburg, S. E. Merry S.--J. Park and J. Mugler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, that will be published in 2015.
Evelyn Ruppert is a data sociologist and a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths College of the University of London. She is also the founder of Big Data and Society, a new open access journal that is natively digital (videos, data-visualizations, etc.) and transdisciplinary, focusing on the analysis of the influence of big data on society. The first issue was published in May. You can keep up to date by reading the journal blog.
Big Data & Society, a new journal providing space for connecting debates about the emerging field of Big Data practices, more updates soon!— Big Data & Society (@BigDataSoc) October 25, 2013