When information is power, these are the questions we should be asking

Various commentators over the past year have made the observation that “Data is the new oil“. If that’s the case, journalists should be following the money. But they’re not.

Instead it’s falling to the likes of Tony Hirst (an Open University academic), Dan Herbert (an Oxford Brookes academic) and Chris Taggart (a developer who used to be a magazine publisher) to fill the scrutiny gap. Recently all three have shone a light into the move towards transparency and open data which anyone with an interest in information would be advised to read.

Hirst wrote a particularly detailed post breaking down the results of a consultation about higher education data.

Herbert wrote about the publication of the first Whole of Government Accounts for the UK.

And Taggart made one of the best presentations I’ve seen on the relationship between information and democracy.

What all three highlight is how control of information still represents the exercise of power, and how shifts in that control as a result of the transparency/open data/linked data agenda are open to abuse, gaming, or spin.

Control, Cost, Confusion

Hirst, for example, identifies the potential for data about higher education to be monopolised by one organisation – UCAS, or HEFCE – at extra cost to universities, resulting in less detailed information for students and parents.

His translation of the outcomes of a HEFCE consultation brings to mind the situation that existed for years around Ordnance Survey data: taxpayers were paying for the information up to 8 times over, and the prohibitive cost of accessing that data ended up inspiring the Free Our Data campaign. As Hirst writes:

“The data burden is on the universities?! But the aggregation – where the value is locked up – is under the control of the centre? … So how much do we think the third party software vendors are going to claim for to make the changes to their systems? And hands up who thinks that those changes will also be antagonistic to developers who might be minded to open up the data via APIs. After all, if you can get data out of your commercially licensed enterprise software via a programmable API, there’s less requirement to stump up the cash to pay for maintenance and the implementation of “additional” features…”

Meanwhile Dan Herbert analyses another approach to data publication: the arrival of commercial-style accounting reports for the public sector. On the surface this all sounds transparent, but it may be just the opposite:

“There is absolutely no empiric evidence that shows that anyone actually uses the accounts produced by public bodies to make any decision. There is no group of principals analogous to investors. There are many lists of potential users of the accounts. The Treasury, CIPFA (the UK public sector accounting body) and others have said that users might include the public, taxpayers, regulators and oversight bodies. I would be prepared to put up a reward for anyone who could prove to me that any of these people have ever made a decision based on the financial reports of a public body. If there are no users of the information then there is no point in making the reports better. If there are no users more technically correct reports do nothing to improve the understanding of public finances. In effect all that better reports do is legitimise the role of professional accountants in the accountability process.

Like Hirst, he argues that the raw data – and the ability to interrogate that – should instead be made available because (quoting Anthony Hopwood): “Those with the power to determine what enters into organisational accounts have the means to articulate and diffuse their values and concerns, and subsequently to monitor, observe and regulate the actions of those that are now accounted for.”

This is a characteristic of the transparency initiative that we need to be sharper around as journalists. The Manchester Evening News discovered this when they wanted to look at spending cuts. What they found was a dataset that had been ‘spun’ to make it harder to see the story hidden within, and to answer their question they first had to unspin it – or, in data journalism parlance, clean it. Likewise, having granular data – ideally from more than one source – allows us to better judge the quality of the information itself.

Chris Taggart meanwhile looks at the big picture: friction, he says, underpins society as we know it. Businesses such as real estate are based on it; privacy exists because of it; and democracies depend on it. As friction is removed through access to information, we get problems such as “jurisdiction failure” (corporate lawyers having “hacked” local laws to international advantage), but also issues around the democratic accountability of ad hoc communities and how we deal with different conceptions of privacy across borders.

Questions to ask of ‘transparency’

The point isn’t about the answers to the questions that Taggart, Herbert and Hirst raise – it’s the questions themselves, and the fact that journalists are, too often, not asking them when we are presented with yet another ‘transparency initiative‘.

If data is the new oil those three posts and a presentation provide a useful introduction to following the money.

(By the way, for a great example of a journalist asking all the right questions of one such initiative, however, see The Telegraph’s Conrad Quilty-Harper on the launch of Police.uk)

Data is not just some opaque term; something for geeks: it’s information: the raw material we deal in as journalists. Knowledge. Power. The site of a struggle for control. And considering it’s a site that journalists have always fought over, it’s surprisingly placid as we enter one of the most important ages in the history of information control.

As Heather Brooke writes today of the hacking scandal:

“Journalism in Britain is a patronage system – just like politics. It is rare to get good, timely information through merit (eg by trawling through public records); instead it’s about knowing the right people, exchanging favours. In America reporters are not allowed to accept any hospitality. In Britain, taking people out to lunch is de rigueur. It’s where information is traded. But in this setting, information comes at a price.

“This is why there is collusion between the elites of the police, politicians and the press. It is a cartel of information. The press only get information by playing the game. There is a reason none of the main political reporters investigated MPs’ expenses – because to do so would have meant falling out with those who control access to important civic information. The press – like the public – have little statutory right to information with no strings attached. Inside parliament the lobby system is an exercise in client journalism that serves primarily the interests of the powerful. Freedom of information laws bust open the cartel.”

But laws come with loopholes and exemptions, red tape and ignorance. And they need to be fought over.

One bill to extend the FOI law to “remove provisions permitting Ministers to overrule decisions of the Information Commissioner and Information Tribunal; to limit the time allowed for public authorities to respond to requests involving consideration of the public interest; to amend the definition of public authorities” and more, for example, was recently put on indefinite hold. How many publishers and journalists are lobbying to un-pause this?

So let’s simplify things. And in doing so, there’s no better place to start than David Eaves’ 3 laws of government data.

This is summed up as the need to be able to “Find, Play and Share” information. For the purposes of journalism, however, I’ll rephrase them as 3 questions to ask of any transparency initiative:

  1. If information is to be published in a database behind a form, then it’s hidden in plain sight. It cannot be easily found by a journalist, and only simple questions will be answered.
  2. If information is to be published in PDFs or JPEGs, or some format that you need proprietary software to see, then it cannot be easily be questioned by a journalist
  3. If you will have to pass a test to use the information, then obstacles will be placed between the journalist and that information

The next time an organisation claims that they are opening up their information, tick those questions off. (If you want more, see Gurstein’s list of 7 elements that are needed to make effective use of open data).

At the moment, the history of information is being written without journalists.

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