When Openness is Unfreedom (alternatively, when data is unfreedom) – Part I

“I think we need to remember that a point of view brought under public scrutiny and discussion in an isolated manner may sometimes present a distorted or incomplete picture of what really happened in the process of making the final decisions.”

Dr. Manmohan Singh, talking in the context of RTI and decision-making

Lately, one of the things that has been bothering me about news reportage in the media is its propensity to react to any and every quote from a politician on issues of corruption, freedom of information, transparency and the likes. Beginning from April this year, newspapers such as the Times of India have latched on to every quote they have felt to be controversial, without even so as much reflecting on the veracity, validity or the thinking that has gone behind the statement.

This tendency is even more worrying because people and various stakeholders are riding high, emotionally, on the wave of transparency, anti-corruption and clean governance, a wave that I believe is reactionary, among other aspects. The media’s reportage appears to me to be aggravating people’s already volatile moods and opinions.

I am writing this series of posts from this point of concern. I also want to pull together some of my recent thoughts, writings and reflections on state-citizen interactions, data, openness and relationships between people, and people and institutions. I hope that our journey through this blog post will be compelling enough to sit back and think through what is happening, at a very fundamental and radical level, to our politics and our relationships as individuals and citizens with each other, with institutions and with governance. This form of reflection is critical, as more and more advocacy efforts, energies and articulations are being directed at ‘opening up’ the ‘state’ and making it more ‘transparent’ to citizens’ through data.

This post bears a controversial title, if you may. I am speaking about when and why openness and data can be unfreedom, primarily in terms of how interventions such as Open Data and Open Government Data (OGD) impact our relationships with state agencies and institutions and with people around us. Let me begin by asking why is it that we are talking about accountability, transparency and openness? At the root of it all lies a deep distrust of the government and the manner in which it makes decisions. We are suspicious of how governments are spending ‘public’ money, whether government has ‘public interest’ at its heart and whether the policies and decisions which governments make are in keeping with ground realities. It is this distrust that is driving us to ask for more and more information about decision-making, budgetary allocations, decisions, policies, building permits, land records, etc.

At the same time, there are organizations, advocates and stakeholders who believe that ‘data’ has to be collected and that information has to be made ‘public’. These entities believe that data is ‘rational’, has truth value, and can be the bases for making decisions and understanding situations on the ground. They therefore collect and/or advocate for more and more ‘data’ about infrastructure, crime, neighbourhoods, city planning and the likes. To them, data is the solution for sound decisions, good policies and planning, and improved accountability of the state towards its citizens. Following from the above, the question I ask is whether data is a solution for the deep seated and increasing distrust of government?

It is my firm belief that data and more data are not the answer to this situation. This is because the core of most open data and OGD advocacy is extracting accountability from the state by presenting data as evidence. What happens when data is collated and re-presented as evidence? How does data as evidence fashion our encounters with different state agents and agencies? What does it do to our distrust of governments? These questions are of fundamental interest to me me because if we indeed want improved state-citizen relationships, where and how do we need to channel our efforts and advocacy. I hope that this series of posts spark some reflection in this direction.

In this post, I begin by briefly exploring the notion of resources. In recent times, people’s discontents with the government have stemmed from the government’s capture of resources such as forests, infrastructure, land, water, space, among others and their arbitrary allocation to select groups and persons. The 2G scam and the award of spectrum licenses, politicians allotting land to their family members, chief ministers allocating mining rights to favoured groups – each of these scams indicates clearly that elected representatives have been misusing public resources for private gains. One of the demands under open data and OGD frameworks is to make available information about resources and public services. It is believed that this information will help people to accurately know facts about the ground and subsequently to hold governments accountable for their actions.

Before we move any further, let us examine the nature of resources such as infrastructure, water, land, forests, public education, etc. Each of these resources are bound by/within legal definitions and classificatory categories set by governments. This means that access to and use of each of these resources is bound by certain rules and regulations, under particular conditions. Thus, rights’ based frameworks define how people can access and exercise rights to water bodies, forests, lands, government education and infrastructure. Yet, in reality, we know that people’s practices and habits often diverge from the definitions and boundaries set by laws and governments. Thus, people access municipal water by installing booster pumps to draw the water with greater force, even though this is an ‘illegal’ practice according to the by-laws of hydraulic departments and water boards. At the same time, a resource is not set in stone even when it is marked or classified in particular ways. The nature and status of a resource changes depending on its availability, scarcity, abundance, value and control. Further, governments order and define the manner in which people can access these resources. In this respect, these resources are strongly mired in legalities and illegalities. These legal contexts, in turn shape perceptions about the resources including the boundaries that are believed to surround its access, use and significance. Perceptions and realities of boundaries then impact how people relate with each other when accessing each of these resources. Given all of this, resources are not static and unchanging. They are highly dynamic, their dynamism shaped by time, politics, law, use, the perceived, real and legal boundaries around them, and people’s unique relationships with each resource, in a particular times and spaces.

Now, what happens when information about resources and services is published and made ‘openly’ available? Publishing accords a status of self-evidence and truth value to the information. Depending on how the information is represented and where and how it is published, this information either gets perceived as evidence or the legal contexts underlying its publication construe it as evidence. This evidence status of the information freezes the status of the resources that have been published. This is because once a resource is represented/categorized/published in one form or another, the act of documenting, recording or writing defines or reinforces particular meanings of the resource and the limits around it. The revised, dominant meaning of the resource in question conflicts with people’s histories, practices and perceptions on the ground, leading to feelings of insecurity, instability, and conflict.

We also need to attend who publishes what kinds of information about resources, in what ways and towards what ends in order to understand better how and when publishing freezes the status of resource and what kinds of conflicts ensue thereafter. Further, if the resource is highly prized, people may want to protect or withhold all or some aspects of the information about it. If the resource sustains or holds a group/s together and defines its/their identity, then information about it may be circulated in ways that enables the group to continue together. If the political context is contentious and governments are trying to capture the resource in order to establish their hold over it and in turn, control over some people, there will be various kinds of dynamics regarding the control, circulation, formation and exchange of information between, among and across government agencies, institutions, intermediaries and citizens groups.

I will end this post here, leaving you with thoughts and questions about publishing, status of information, and freezing resources in time and place. This post does not offer a very precise or coherent explanation of the journey that lies ahead of us in this series. A number of the thoughts and insights that I present in this series are the outcomes of thinking and writing aloud. So you would need to bear with me, but I promise that the journey will nonetheless be compelling.

In the next post, I intend to open up the notion of rationality that underlies data and openness and drives the advocacy around it. I believe that a discussion about rationality is very much in order because information, in its various forms and contents, is rarely rational. Yet, it is believed that information can be presented in a rational and coherent manner. What then becomes of the histories in which information(s) are embedded? What becomes of the social relationships that develop around information and that are then sought to be rationalized by rationalizing information? How does rationality underlying advocacy for data and openness now tackle questions concerning truth, accuracy and verifiability of information?

(To be continued)

9 thoughts on “When Openness is Unfreedom (alternatively, when data is unfreedom) – Part I”

  1. I am really astonished that the PMO’s office should have revealed the comments of Pranab Mukherji’s Ministry on P Chidambaram’s role. Here we do not get even replies to even our innocuous queries from the High Court even and when complained the State Information Commissioner also does not respond. By this token PMO’s office seems to be very much progressive, liberal and freedom-loving than the High Court!

  2. Hi, can you please tell me if my understanding of your line of argument is correct? As I understand from the above piece, you are saying – We have our own perceptions of our rights and liabilities regarding resources. These perceptions keep changing and may sometimes be different for different people. If government publishes data regarding these resources, we are not allowed to have our own idea of resource. We will have to conform to the government idea of resource and this is unchanging and not necessarily in tandem with people’s ideas.

    1. Dear Voyeur,

      My concerns lie with publishing data in seemingly ‘open’ formats, whether the publishing is done by governments or by private individuals and organizations. The question that I am grappling with is what does ‘publishing’ do to the perceptions and status of the information in question, and subsequently to the relationships among people and between governments and people. It is my conviction that once information is published online or in other ‘open’ and universally accessible formats, the information acquires the status of evidence. The other reason why the status of the information changes to evidence is because as Matthew Hull, writing in the context of lists of persons affected by land acquisitions in Islamabad explains, “The proponents of transparency strive for an immediate relation between representations and objects …”. This is the reason why transparency advocates – within and outside the state – propose the use of information systems and technologies to make more and more data transparent. Hull’s argument corresponds, to some extent. with Marilyn Strathern’s explanation of accountability where she says that we demand accountability because we do not trust governments. Accountability advocates therefore strive to make things more explicit, like Hull says drawing immediate relations between representations and objects.

      So here is where I come from and here is where I question when is the ideology of openness and data and remain concerned about how these practices can translate as unfreedom in certain contexts.

      To respond to your query, when governments publish data about a resource, it does not mean that we are not allowed to hold our own ideas and practices of the resource. But through publishing, governments seek to establish singular, unified meanings of the resource which is then imposed on different publics through laws and processes of standardization and compliance. How, when and why people transition to these dominant meanings of the resource established by governments is something which we need to understand more intricately if we are to understand change and reforms in nuanced ways. Again, the meanings of resources imposed by governments through transparency, ICTs, laws and other systems and methods does not mean that all the arms and wings of the state will necessarily adhere to that same meaning, in the same way as the government has ordained it to be, absolutely. Everyone makes transitions, at different scales and levels. It is a matter of who is at what kinds of receiving ends – from the state, from society, from publics – and how they make the transitions in the meanings, and to borrow Hull’s term ‘referents’, is something we need to watch out for.

      I hope to give more concrete examples in subsequent blog posts in this series.

      1. Eagerly awaiting the next posts in the series. I may have reservations about your thesis right now, but interest is piqued and would like to read the full argument.

  3. Audited’ accounts of Kejriwal’s NGO – PCRF, is a sad apology for processes of audit, transparency and accountability!

    Two days after Kiran Bedi was exposed for flying on discounted air tickets but taking full fare from sponsors, another prominent Team Anna member, Arvind Kejriwal, now faces charges of diverting huge funds from anti-graft front India against Corruption (IAC) to his own NGO. Swami Agnivesh, a former Anna Team member alleged that Kejriwal deposited between Rs 70 lakh and Rs 80 lakh from donations to IAC to his trust, Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF).

    Team Anna on the other hand responded that they will place all details regarding their accounts on the website of Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF), by this month-end after a special audit.

    Such an offer by Team Anna however may not be by itself sufficient to assuage public misgivings and in all probability, may even end up fanning the fires of criticism of Team Anna further. Why? Just take a look at the appalling transparency and accountability standards of PCRF as reflected in their 5 years of audited accounts their placed at their website. Read on to find out why?

    Read more: http://exitopinionpollsindia.blogspot.com/2011/10/audited-accounts-of-kejriwals-ngo-pcrf.html

    1. One more instance of reaction, instead of reflection! Thanks for confirming what I have been concerned about!

We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s