The push to free up more public information and make government more transparent is one of the primary goals of open data advocates and the “Government 2.0″ movement. But sociologist and Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd warned attendees at the recent Gov 2.0 conference that there’s a downside to such efforts. “Transparency is not enough,” she said (video is embedded below), and raw information without the ability to understand or make sense of it does no one any good.
The issues with transparency are similar to the issues with Internet access and the digital divide. In focusing on the first step – transparency or access – it’s easy to forget the bigger picture. Internet access does not automagically created an informed citizenry. Likewise, transparent data doesn’t make an informed citizenry. Transparency is only the first step. And when we treat transparency as an ends in itself, we can create all sorts of unintended consequences.
Boyd described how laws require the publication of lists of registered sex offenders, which she agreed is a positive thing in most ways. But as she noted, many of the names on them belong to young people who were charged with criminal acts for having a consensual relationship with someone under the age of official consent. Having just the raw information about such types of things can actually make things worse if it’s not interpreted correctly:
Information is power. This is precisely why we want to get information into the hands of more people. But as we do, we need to account for a new twist in all of this: Spinning the interpretation of the information is even more powerful. And the more that we make information available, the more that those in power twist it to tell their story. When everyone has information, information is no longer nearly as powerful as the ability to control its narrative.
Information alone doesn’t empower people, she said, adding that: “Information is never neutral. Neutrality is another one of those lovely ideals. But Wikipedia entries are not neutral nor is the algorithm that produces Google News.” To be able to take advantage of all the transparency and open data that people are calling for, Boyd argued, we need information literacy, which includes the skills to interpret information in context. “If you want information access because you want a better-informed citizenry and a fairer society, you must start embracing the importance of information literacy and the need to provide infrastructure to help people build these skills.”
Boyd isn’t the only prominent figure to raise the issue of the unintended consequences of transparency in government: Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig wrote an essay last year that argued transparency can be a double-edged sword.
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