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

This is the second post in the series that I began in October. I want to thank Rasagy Sharma for prompting me to put down the second post in this series.

This evening, Rasagy raised a question on twitter about whether the effort of a developer to make the database of the Indian railways downloadable is ‘official’ or not? As Rasagy later explained, the downloadable database is a list of trains, stations and the railway timetable. This list has has been made available in various downloadable formats (such as .csv, .pdf, etc) to encourage developers/interested persons to make web/mobile based applications. Rasagy’s question was more in the nature of checking the legality of  the act of putting this information/database on another website when it is explicitly copyright of the Indian Railways (as declared on their website). He argued that cities such as New York and some countries across the world have made this information ‘open’, meaning available to the ‘public’. Hence, it is unreasonable for this government entity i.e., the Indian railways, to be ‘closed’ about reuse of this information by private entities and individuals.

My response to Rasagy was that I was not aware of the legality of this person’s act who has made the railway information available in multiple downloadable formats. However, my ears perked up (as did the antennae on my head) when I heard the term ‘open’ and the argument that other countries around the world have made similar information ‘open’ to the ‘public’. I am going to try and open up the notion of ‘open’ and ‘openness’ in this post and tackle the issue of ‘rationality’ of data in the next post of this series.

At the outset, it is worth pointing out that there are different arrangements and systems under which government data is made open for different publics in different parts of the world. In countries such as the UK, different government departments have different licensing arrangements and contracts under which they provide (including selling) their data to private entities for reuse and interpretation. These private entities, in turn, under those specific licensing arrangements, can reuse/repurpose the data for further commercial and ‘public’ uses.

At the same time, across the world, different government departments have different interests and stakes in ‘opening’ up their data. Here, ‘opening’ can mean multiple things including publishing the data on websites, sharing it with private parties for reuse, interpretation, developing visualization or applications, and/or the departments themselves making the data available through multiple avenues including publications, websites, notice boards, under Right to Information/Freedom of Information legislations, service delivery systems, etc.

In perhaps another time, open and openness could have involved multiple meanings and manifestations. In the present, it appears that the onset and pervasiveness of digital technologies has led to information, data, openness and access as being associated primarily (and only) with the Internet and mobile phones. Further, those who are participating and active in the advocacy for open government data are mainly donor organizations, NGOs, think tanks, activists and developers, most of who hold narrow views about government, politics and empowerment and simultaneously benign views about data, openness and access (I elaborate on this further down in this post). These narrow and benign views and the strong agenda of empowerment and change leads them to advocate openness of government data in terms of (presumably) wide accessibility through the web and mobile phones, and reuse of data through web and mobile based applications.

Almost across the board, the government is believed to be the storehouse of information and data which ‘ought’ to be made ‘public’. Government personnel and departments, since pre- and colonial times, have been maintaining files, records, statistics, plans, maps, classificatory systems, etc which have currently acquired value and meaning as ‘government data’. It is also believed that governments in India have been hoarding this data and are not forthcoming about sharing it with the ‘public’. This government held information (fashionably known and practiced as (rational) data) is believed to be of immense value for purposes of planning for infrastructure and allocation of resources for cities, villages and districts. Hence the advocacy for opening it. At the same time, it is recognized that government personnel and departments ‘exploit’ citizens by not sharing important information with them and (mis)use the information either by making arbitrary decisions that negatively impact people, or to extract bribes from citizens. Following from here, ‘opening’ up information is but a benign act, one that is (presumably) universally desirable.

The problem with blanket advocacy for openness of all government data and the fashioning of ‘openness’ as universally desirable and beneficial stems from this narrow understanding of government and data held by governments. Firstly, governments rarely function like the ideal-type Weberian notion where bureaucracy is rational, orderly and acts in accordance with laws. Government personnel’s functioning is shaped by their own social and political positioning in state and society, their rationalities and belief systems, the political contexts of their departments, and the politico-socio-economic value of the resource they are governing/distributing. Government personnel’s functioning is further shaped by the legacies of their departments and the personnel who worked there earlier. Each of these, and a host of other historical and contextual factors, strongly shape the manner in which government employees, in different departments, maintain files, classification systems, records, and a host of other documents and information. Blanket ‘publishing’ and ‘opening’ of this information and ‘data’ completely overlooks the rationalities, history and politics underlying certain forms of information. In the absence of a nuanced understanding of why certain things were classified, documented and/or maintained in particular ways, blanket openness and publishing of information leads to narrow/particularistic interpretations of data.

Secondly, data and information are historical, social and political. There are multiple, parallel and diverse historical trajectories that have shaped ‘data’ in its current form. At the same time, government regimes and laws have, from time to time, dictated how information must be classified, documented and held. Government personnel have either conformed to these laws in letter and spirit or have documented information based on vernacular interpretations of these laws and policies. In this respect, information archiving, management and publication are strongly political. Also,undeniably and nearly universally, government departments and agents acquire power by holding and circulating information that is of value to people. When information is ‘opened’, it does not necessarily mean that the power of these institutions and agents will automatically be reduced. Rather, given the intricate and intertwined nature of government institutions and hierarchies, openness of someone can mean increased power for other competing agencies/agents. In these respects then, information/data are highly political, even though certain ‘datasets’ may seemingly appear to be harmless were they to be opened. Finally, information is social in that government officials at different levels and diverse citizen groups share various kinds of relationships through exchange, circulation and reproduction of various kinds of information. The processes of exchange, circulation and reproduction in turn create various channels and systems of trust, distrust, responsiveness (and the lack of it) and precedents. At the same time, the exchange, circulation and reproduction of information gives numerous lives to the same set of information, making its meanings multiple, diverse and amenable to be mobilized by different groups of people, at different times.

The primary issue with ‘publishing’ and making information ‘open’ is that openness, in particular ways through particular channels, and publication (by putting it on a website, database or paper) changes the perception about the information/data. The information/data acquires the status of  evidence or fact. This, in turn, re-shapes the relationship between governments and citizens in that advocacy for openness and citizens’ own negative perceptions about governments leads them to use this data (now evidence and fact) in confrontational ways to hold governments answerable and accountable. Such confrontational encounters with government institutions and personnel are not necessarily productive in making them responsive. Rather, government agencies and officials, especially those at the frontline with who citizens interact on an everyday basis, are helpless in the face of this open data and the fact of their own lack of resources and institutional ability to respond to people’s needs.

Secondly, publishing and opening of data does not take place in isolation, especially if our demand is that governments must make data open and available. Opening of data requires that information from different departments (or even the same department) be collated, organized and published in a certain way. This itself involves repurposing data documented differently in the past to be re-documented and published in particular ways in the present. Further, depending on the nature of the information, its value to certain quarters of the government, and the legalities which have governed its documentation in the past, opening up the information would involve passage of new laws and reshuffling of hierarchy and authority within/across the government to govern (aka control) the ‘open’ ‘publication’ of information.

Thus, the belief that openness of information/data will make governments transparent and will reduce their power is but a rather short-sighted approach of open data advocacy. If information is indeed power (and power underlies the documentation and maintenance of information), then openness will lead to a redistribution (if not aggravation) of power and dynamics within the government and in the relationships between citizens and the state. Further, whether government held information is opened by the state or by private entities, openness involves re-shaping the legal and political architecture surrounding the information/data and governing the relationships between citizens and state. This being the case then, we seriously need to ask whether we are allowing more government into our lives by opening up government information/data in particular ways. I hope to discuss this issue in greater detail in subsequent posts, citing the instances of opening up particular kinds of information.

Finally, the notion of openness of information is strongly associated with beliefs about empowerment and change. It is believed that once information is made available, in universal and accessible formats, platforms and channels, then people become aware of their rights, powers, laws and are better able to hold their governments accountable. It is indeed true that knowledge of something puts you in a better position to bargain with the opposite party. It is therefore also true that availability of information – in whatever form – enables different citizen groups to leverage on their current resources, position and abilities to negotiate better with governments. Availability of information is therefore the first step, though not the only one in negotiating with governments. What matters from hereon is ‘how’ negotiation, interaction, confrontation or discussion takes place. This process is what leads to cultivation of precedents, responsiveness and relationships between citizens and the state. Blanket open availability of information, especially in an atmosphere where there is deep distrust of governments, does not necessarily lead to better negotiation. At the same time, we also need to step back and reflect on what constitutes empowerment in real life. The very act of being able to step beyond one’s confines, interact with a government authority/agency, get work done, are some of the experiences where different people experience different levels of empowerment, change and a sense of personal capacity. What we therefore need is not simply ‘open data’, but more avenues where citizens and state can interact with each other and develop more lasting systems of trust and responsiveness, as well as systems where citizens can directly negotiate with each other without requiring the state’s interventions each time.

This is not the end of the post, but more a provocation to mull over the notions of data, empowerment, access, responsiveness and state-citizen relationships. It must also be noted that countries have different laws pertaining to openness of information based on each individual country’s historical trajectory which in turn has shaped its relationship with laws, contracts and written rules. In India, we do not yet have laws pertaining to the copyright of information released under RTI. Neither are we at a stage where certain European countries and America currently have laws and policies governing the reuse and commercial use of government data. In this respect, our tryst and trajectory with government data is contingent on how we understand, advocate and shape the ecology of state-citizen interactions and the sociality and politics of information. In the absence of written laws, contracts and arrangements, we have the unique opportunity to be able to craft different avenues and options which lead to diverse opportunities for tactics, negotiations as well as different degrees of responsiveness from governments.

Interestingly, in the twitter exchange which led to this blog post, Rasagy mentioned: “”Open” = Available for everyone to read and use? (Or much more than that?)” I leave you with this question (and there is no single, overarching answer here …)

[This blog post is also dedicated to Yuvi who ‘informed’ me on how to over my current writer’s block … … …]

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

  1. Good post. I agree that open data is only a first step towards next steps of negotiation and so on. It also matters that this data is not taken out of context to engage in a ‘confrontation’. Especially in the current scenario, where there IS deep distrust of the government. The link between open data and allowing more government into our lives is not clear, though.

    But I also think data serves a more fundamental purpose than serving only as a leveraging tool: important – and accurate – data being made available is a mode of critically understanding things around us, according to me.


    1. Dear Neha, the link between open data promoting more government into our lives relates with how certain kinds of data are standardized and published. It also links to how the legal architectures underlying the data are transformed and how government i.e., officials at certain levels of hierarchy and authority, become central arbiters in negotiations and dispute resolution. I will detail this issue in more detail in subsequent posts.

      On data being available as a mode of critically understanding things around us, yes, that is true. At the same time, it is also important for us to trace why issues of truth, verifiability and falsity of data have become predominant now, and also to recognize that there are multiple historical trajectories which shape how something becomes data/information. I hope to discuss these issues further in this series.


  2. Zainab hi and thanks for these posts.

    A doubt which is also a matter of “tone”… Im not sure why all mystery and agency still appears to be placed on the side of secrecy, rumours, etc. (from your previous post) or “power”, while we take the “narrow view” of advocates at their word, and paint openness as a blanket form of transparency. Which you agree, it actually is not.

    In other words, isnt the question not only what the developer making the railways database available “argues”, but what data in these format, GIVEN that they are caricatures produced by government and other bodies, can open up, or evoke. It is also a matter of this imagination, no? It seems to be powerful.

    If openness is not only an ideological category but also a reality and “pull” produced by the fact that websites can be scraped and databases leak, then the question and challenge shifts a bit I think. Its about extrapolating further and not just letting governments keep their secrets, right. And here media forms or the “just” internet and mobile phone space you talk about seem to be crucial and themselves non-transparent sites for analysis and interpretation, not only “reuse” or physical distribution of data.

    Looking forward to your further examples, and discussions.


    1. Hi Ashok, thanks for your insightful comments and thanks for pointing out to the ‘tone’ of the post/s. I will look into this, since it is essential to argue and yet not speak with hints of cynicism and/or with the sentiment of holding on to my position/arguments.

      Interestingly, last evening, I was wondering aloud how advocacy for open government data is shaping up in other cities across India. I am more cued in to the scene in Bangalore and have little idea of what is going on in Delhi. I do not know what is happening in Mumbai. Also, given your own work with archives and open access, it might be interesting to hear your thoughts and experiences of how Open Government Data and Open Data advocacy converges and departs from your work. I look forward to more interactions on this.

      To move on to your comment, yes, it does appear that I am placing more agency on secrecy, rumours, etc. But these are also forms of information. Then why are they not spoken about in the context of open data? My first fundamental question therefore is: what counts as information that must be opened and why?

      Secondly, you and I both variously live and work in Bombay. Bombay, clearly more than any other Indian city, is a place where people thrive on exchanging information and trading on information with each other. In local trains, news from the morning papers is discussed and multiple interpretations are made of it. People trade on information in stock markets. Realtors, brokers and potential property buyers, among others, ‘speculate’ on information. People try to obtain information from government officials in various ways, including through intermediaries and brokers. Government officials, at different levels of authority and hierarchy, ‘spread’ and ‘communicate’ information in different ways. Different meanings are made of these different information/s, circulated in a wide variety of ways whether including or excluding the web or mobile phone or any other form or medium of digital technologies. If you reflect on this, what is this relationship between information and cities, primarily how urban space is constituted through information? What does the notion of Open Government Data – in terms of collating information dispersed across departments, time and space – doing not only to this relationship between cities and information, but also to urban space fundamentally? I am not trying to veer you to think in a particular direction. I am myself prodding on how urban space is now getting (re)configured through advocacy about Open Data and Open Government Data, especially if you imagine cities as spaces carved of memories, gossip, rumours, different kinds of closed- and openness-es, numerous relationships, histories, etc.

      The point you have made about government information representing the caricature that governments are/can be and that of the possibilities that lie with opening up these information/s is both interesting and important to think through. The question that I am grappling with, in this context, is about how we imagine and reify openness. To make my point clearer, information about the same resource – say water infrastructure including ‘data’ about connections, pipelines, etc – is documented and maintained either in similar or somewhat diverse ways across Karnataka, Maharashtra, etc. Now, the engineers, the clerks and various other officials who have documented this information – do they all hold the same meanings and idioms about water, connections, valves, pipelines, legality, illegality, bill payment and non-payment? Considering that this information is also documented in very dispersed ways (I am refraining from using the term ‘local’), it also means that officials *could* have their own interpretations of the contexts, situations, populations and accordingly, the manner in which information should be documented. What happens now when this information is tried to be made ‘open’ – where ‘open’ can simply mean computing the information as it is on a website or it can also mean conceiving of an information system or a database and computing parts of the information accordingly? Isn’t this process also about creating a caricature of a supposedly unified government out of dispersed information? What I am trying to suggest here is that as much as some kinds of information need to be opened up in order to reveal the caricature of the government that documents and controls this information, it is also possible that ‘opening’ up information in certain ways creates ‘caricatures’ of governments which may or not be true. Also, ‘exposing’ certain caricatures of governments may end up perpetuating the belief that frontline officials and agencies are inefficient, corrupt and lazy.

      I am not trying to suggest here that governments are holier than thou. I have repeatedly been trying to emphasize that the government or the state is not a monolith or an absolute giant. Hence, if we approach openness as a project that will expose the state, it is true that it may expose certain aspects and arms of the state while empowering or disempowering others. Opening information about railway charts, timetables, etc opens up the ‘caricature’ of the railway department (and perhaps the government generally) as ‘hoarder’ of information because it insists on adherence to copyright. (But then, has the copyright been created by web developers or the firm that made the website in the first place, and not by the railway officials???)

      It is here that I am also questioning whether there is only one form of openness – reified through digital technologies – or are there forms of openness where the information is open in ways that may seem closed, but are open to those groups to who the information is necessary and relevant? We need to find more, as much as we need to research and document more on the different ways in which people access information in everyday lives and how open government data and open data projects get embedded within these practices.


      1. Hi, Don’t disagree with most of what you say here, but am still unsure about when exactly “data is unfreedom”.

        To use an analogy: when google published google maps and street view, we were faced with a new “open” level of reality. Despite critiques, it became commonly used. The trick is to extrapolate from such new layers to produce new possibilities, including the basic understanding that this data is a caricature. (Not a caricature of government, but of the situation of which the data is a record, produced BY government, or google in this case).

        It is a certain limited view of the world, a kind of cartoon. Once we “see” this, there is some “freedom” of ways to understand how google may be capitalizing on this “image”, ways to challenge their methods of collection and interpretation, and to not feedback into their “research”. And also good reason to produce independent kinds of maps, in kind of battle of cartoons. This is an ongoing struggle against google’s power. A lot of it does take place in the same space as google’s operation, online and global, since it cannot be done through rumors and secrets alone, although of course none of this prevents train conversations or bedroom whispers :)

        It seems to me that analysis of everyday life may be insufficient to deal with monstrosities like google or governments. We need a “tuning” to their workings and contradictions, and open data is one way of such tuning. Im not sure why the digital is you say “one form” of this, there are plenty of digital secrets and dungeons and email groups and usb drives! Digital is not equal to numerical, open is not equal to transparent. Open is always partial, and often a strategic move
        (as seen even in the extreme form of surrender
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Manila_declared_open_city.jpg )
        …and should be rendered as such.

        But more after we meet!


  3. Interesting argument Zainab… One comment… It is extremely, even pervasively common to see “government” (even democratically elected government) as somehow (or necessarily) having “interests” of its own over and above or alongside the “public interest” which (at least according to democratic theory) democratic governments are to be representing.

    There is certainly in many contexts reason to be cynical about governments (which I think is the underlying stance of this argument–and dare I say of much of the “open government” positioning), but I think it is extremely dangerous to take such a position as being uniform and unquestionable. Dangerous because it means that governments are not challenged to in fact, use their position, power and resources to represent the public interest (and be held accountable if they don’t act accordingly) and the end product of such a positioning is an ideology where only “private” interests i.e. those who are able to make use of “open information” are in fact trustworthy even though there is no evident structure of accountability or necessary representivity for their actions and positions.




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