Over the past decade, hype around access to public information has moved on to serious discussions around what it means to collect, store and disseminate data, and the responsibilities of public and private data holders.
In 2011, discussions within the recently founded Open Government Partnership (OGP) boosted a novel collaboration between civil society and public agencies worldwide. The aim of these discussions was to jointly determine best practices and methodologies for making public information available through open databases, and initiatives hosted by civil society emerged to strengthen the process shortly after.
In Latin America, Abrelatam and Condatos are the most well-known of these initiatives, and they have played a vital role in building connections between governments, citizens, and CSOs interested in open data for research, advocacy and policy making, engendering high levels of interaction and trust between these stakeholders.
As Paraguay’s main digital rights organisation, TEDIC has participated in discussions around open data on both the country and regional level since the organisation’s inception. However, after ten years of openness policies, reflections and lessons learned must inform appropriate evolution and adaptation and ensure that future open data policies adopt a more responsible data approach on the part of both civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments.
Here, we offer some reflections based on years of engaging with these issues.
Building databases is not enough
At the start of this movement, building databases, apps and websites appeared to be a goal in itself. Since then, we have observed an increase in understanding that it is not enough to just create a database and expect that people will use it. Although ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) have enormously facilitated access to information in general, governments and CSOs must understand that there are inequalities in the region that need proper attention, and both must work to ensure proper access to publicly available information. Structural problems such as internet access and data literacy should be taken into account by policymakers, in order to find appropriate ways to disseminate information and engage with citizens.
More collaboration between governments and CSOs
We need robust partnerships between government and CSOs. TEDIC has documented collaborations with the government that aimed to create civic technology based on public information and databases but that ultimately failed due to public bodies’ restrictions that made effective reuse by third parties difficult, violating open data OGP agreements.
In order to build a society that truly values transparency, we need robust relationships between governments and civil society organisations that ensure that effective reuse of data by different stakeholders is possible.
Diversity should be incorporated by design
When CSOs and governments design open data policies, there is a lack of representation from LGTBQI communities and grassroots women’s communities. This underrepresentation is a serious problem that threatens the generation of databases that might systematise these groups’ particular issues and needs. It could arguably continue to make them invisible to both public and private initiatives that could improve their lives.
We need better privacy and data protection regulation
The initial trend of aiming to open up as much information as possible has evolved into a more precautionary approach that also considers the protection of privacy and personal data. The recent enactment of the GDPR in the European Union has now forced civil society and even governments to recognise the importance of responsible data management, and incorporate responsible data practices in their organizational strategies.
This is important, and we are noticing how different countries in Latin America are now moving towards enacting data protection laws and provisions as well. In Paraguay, for example, TEDIC is part of a national coalition that has recently presented a comprehensive data protection law in Congress, with the endorsement of a number of public and private stakeholders.
The future: going beyond data
The tectonic shift brought about by transparency and open data policies in Paraguay and in the region is undeniable. However, such initiatives need to incorporate provisions to mitigate the potentially harmful effects associated with creating databases that hold identifiable and sensitive information. We believe that government open data action plans and CSO projects that collect, reuse or store data should, at a minimum, conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) for any project related to the creation of any database. Such DPIAs should be available to the public.
We also need to go beyond focusing only on databases, apps and websites that store and visualise information. While important, this needs to be part of a broader debate around ensuring connectivity, accessibility and digital literacy. We consider spaces like Abrelatam/Condatos to be vital in tackling these structural problems. In the long run, inequalities in these areas could risk creating first- and second-class citizens, depending on the amount of information and data that people can access and process. We must avoid this at all costs.
Lastly, we believe that there needs to be a more concerted effort to systematise experiences and lessons learned over the last ten years. The experiences of both CSOs and governments could provide insight into both the policies and initiatives that have worked, and those that have not. Building an accessible knowledge infrastructure could help strengthen the current community of practitioners, who aim to create a more responsible data ecosystem that respects peoples and communities’ right to consent, privacy and data ownership, while also ensuring the transparency, openness and reuse of data our societies need for a healthy democracy. Such is the challenge in the years to come.