1. 8

  2. 7

    Interesting article. What I find frustrating about analyses like these, though, which rightly point out the ways in which technology has not lived up to its democratizing promise and has enabled the creation of new hierarchies and power structures, is that they always seem to romanticize the old hierarchies and power structures which have been swept away. This article is explicitly dismissive of any concerns about those power structures, casting them as “much rhetoric about the stifling effect of ‘gatekeepers,’” as though those effects were imaginary, and the world a fair and well-ordered place until Amazon came along to ruin everything.

    Take, for example, this bit:

    It mandates non-discriminatory licensing, focuses on standards-based formats, and generally insists that data be accessible to rich and poor alike, like justice and the Ritz. It insists that any measures governments would like to take to favour—for example—non-commercial users or local users, be taken off the table.

    There is so much to unpack here–for example, the conflation (convenient for the author’s argument, but totally unfounded) of non-commercial users and local users. I am sympathetic to the argument that non-commercial use is a higher use than commercial use. But why on earth should local users be prioritized over distant users? Perhaps there is a case to be made, but the author hasn’t even tried to make it.

    The author also implies that restrictions on commercial and distant users are the kinds of restrictions that governments have historically applied, and against which the open data movement has worked. Speaking from direct experience trying to pry data out of local government agencies (experience which I strongly doubt the author has had), nothing could be further from the truth. These agencies are set up almost exclusively to serve commercial users (mostly government contractors or potential contractors), the bigger the better, and are often reluctant to disclose data to users without a commercial affiliation. As an individual I have been met with stonewalling, skepticism as to the legitimacy of my interest in the data, and copying fees clearly set with the budgets of multi-million-dollar companies in mind*.

    Indeed, one of the most common ruses which local agencies employ to try to evade FOIA laws is to claim that data which may have originally been collected for the agency by a private contractor, or may live inside of a software system set up and possibly maintained a commercial entity, is actually the property of the contracting corporation or is covered under an NDA and is exempt from disclosure. It’s these kinds of cozy public-private arrangements (which always seem to benefit the private more than the public) that the open data people are working to break down.

    * In fairness, government agencies here have become markedly more open to these requests over the past several years. But I think that is largely due to the strong local open data movement.

    1. 3

      rightly point out the ways in which technology has not lived up to its democratizing promise

      I don’t recall it making such a promise.

      1. 4

        Various people have been making this claim for a long time. I do not know how much buy-in the idea has had. A concrete example from a quick Google search: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/can-technology-make-democracy-better/259495/

        1. 4

          It’s long been a standard trope of the WIRED magazine types. All we have to do is give them internet, and financial capitalism will inevitably follow.