This week: Scaling the walls of open data and citizen engagement

Looking through the Washington Posts’s “40 more maps that explain the world” there was one that stuck out to me in particular. Number 12 shows the walls of the world - walls to control immigration as well as walls built as political barriers. As I pondered the implications of these manmade walls, it made me wonder, what are the walls that need to be scaled in regards to open data and citizen engagement? While seemingly different issues, I’ll talk about both because they go hand in hand. You can’t have engaged citizens who are kept in the dark, and the main driver of open data is to engage others in using the data, citizens included. Both also require an overall systematic change.

Here is what I came up with:

Keeping things in and keeping others out

This is the main purpose of a wall isn’t it? The main driver behind wanting to keep others out of one’s business is fear and power, and fear of losing power. Many fear the reprisals from what may be discovered in their data, and fear a citizen backlash if given an ounce of power. We all know knowledge is power, and sharing a bit of knowledge might feel like sharing a bit of power as well.

In order to make progress with governments and organizations who have built these walls, they must be handled with special care. Over on Oxfam’s blog, you can read more about how their Within and Without the State program has made progress in scaling this type of wall using a ‘social contract’ that emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of both citizens and state.

Good Ol’ Habit

We are all used to functioning a certain way, and we often get stuck into thinking our way is the “right” way to do things. It takes determined effort to change a habit. This is equally true for organizations as well as governments. We have to make the conscious decision to include citizen engagement into our processes and programs, and consistently make our data available in a usable format.

Price Tag

Everything has a price tag. While not necessarily more expensive than other initiatives, there is always the question of who is supporting this and how it will continue to be supported.

Side note: help out those who are seeking funding to close the feedback loop as a part of the Making All Voices Count Global Innovation Competition by voting for your favorite idea through January 30.

It’s not in my TOR

Breaking a habit takes work, and a big question is often who is going to do that work. I have personally witnessed this in a number of countries among a myriad of development partners. Who is in charge of entering the data, making sure it’s up-to-date, and then making sure it’s used properly in decision making processes? Who gathers the feedback? Who is listening and making the appropriate changes based on the feedback? It’s a surprisingly big wall to cross, and should be taken into account when implementing these programs.

What other walls do you see that are keeping open data and citizen engagement from crossing organizational borders? How can we do better at scaling these walls?

Weekly updates are written by Taryn Davis of Development Gateway; email her your tips for next week's update to get a shout-out in the post.