Since 2009, a wave of governments, primarily in North America and Europe but including notable examples inmiddle income and developing countries, have launched Open Government Data (OGD) initiatives toproactively release public sector information via online data catalogues. OGD proponents extol its potential toachieve a broad spectrum of public policy goals, including: enhanced economic growth, improved transparencyand accountability, more efficient and effective provision of public services, as well as strengthened citizenparticipation in governance. Developing country leaders, international donors and civil society are increasinglypromoting OGD as essential to good governance and growth. The successive launches of the World Bank’sOpen Data Initiative, the international Open Government Partnership, and Kenya’s Open Data portal areemblematic of this enthusiasm. Despite its appeal, the emergent Open Government Data movement evidencesproblematic assumptions that may relegate it to development fad rather than catalytic change agent, if ignored.After decades of investment to alleviate poverty and improve governance in developing countries with mixedresults, it is understandable why the international community and developing countries want to view OpenGovernment Data as a catalyst to remedy persistent problems. Poor governance is chronic in many countries ascitizens suffer under dysfunctional institutions, endemic corruption and the abdication of their governments inthe provision of public goods and services. Despite exceptional economic growth in countries such as China andIndia, persistent inequities prevail both between and within middle and lower-income countries. Finally, thelimited voice and rights of citizens in many states leave them with little recourse to fight political and economicrepression or productively contest the failure of their governments to fulfill their duties.This search for a definitive solution is combined with opportunism seeking to exploit two recent developmentsfor improved governance and growth: the unprecedented proliferation of information communicationtechnologies (ICTs) and a ground-swell of grassroots movements organizing themselves through social mediato demand political reform and improved public services. Middle-income and developing countries have beenadopting new ICTs, predominantly mobile phones, with impressive speed, drastically increasing the‘connectedness’ of citizens to information. The ‘Arab Spring’, a series of demonstrations and uprisings of young people throughout the Middle East, was also instructive in awakening the world to the disruptivepotential of social media to create internal pressure for reform.
Despite this confluence of promising events, the extent of Open Government Data’s impact and itstransferability to middle income and developing countries must be assessed on the validity of its assumptions.Implicit in the OGD concept, are predictions regarding the demand and supply of public sector information. TheOGD movement assumes that the public has the will and capacity to use open government data to achieve socialand commercial value. However, this rosy scenario ignores stark realities of digital exclusion, low informationcapabilities and constrained civic space that characterize many developing countries. The OGD movement alsoassumes that governments can be convinced to mandate release of public sector information and that, onceagreed, they have the endogenous capacity to implement such an initiative. However, this disregards enervatinginfluences of patronage networks, corruption and low civil service capabilities that characterize somedeveloping country contexts. Finally, advocates generally assume that the models of OGD release featured indeveloped countries will seamlessly translate into functional modalities in the developing world, irrespective of differences in environmental conditions and the relative capacities of key societal actors.It is the contention of this paper, that if the Open Government Data movement is to achieve its aspirations,potentially flawed assumptions must be exposed and intentionally remedied. To this end, this paper begins bychronicling the philosophy, drivers and history of the Open Government Data movement. The second partcritically assesses the transferability of OGD concepts and modes of release in middle income and developingcountries. Finally, the third and fourth parts of the paper identify underlying challenges and limitations of theOGD movement to inform future efforts.
Artwell Dlamini. “Arab Spring is a Game-changer in the Corruption Fight.” Business Live. May 9, 2011. http://www.businesslive.co.za/incoming/2011/05/09/arab-spring-is-game-changer-in-corruption-fight.