Does Open Data Help The Rich Exploit The Poor?

from the sounds-a-little-alarmist dept

JNomics points us to a Marshall Kirkpatrick post on ReadWriteWeb about "How Open Data is Used Against the Poor," in which Kirkpatrick discusses an article and research about the effects of the digitization of land records in Bangalore. Apparently, as a result of the increased access to the data (for those with computers), middle and upper income people were able to exploit details found in the records as leverage for gaining land ownership from the poor.

Kirkpatrick and the author of the original article, Mike Gurstein, use this example to make the point that simply opening up data is often not really enough to benefit the broader population, and further, that it can simply promote the widening of the divide between the rich and the poor. Both argue for coupling open data with efforts that insure "effective use" for the most people - i.e., leveling the playing field by essentially controlling access to the data or delaying openness until tools and policies are put in place to insure equal footing for everyone. Kirkpatrick concludes his post with the following warning:
... if you want all parts of society to benefit from the opening of public data, then simply opening it up and allowing the most ferociously competitive people in society to grab a hold of it may not be a good way to impact the world positively.
This seems like a bit of an overstatement. There are always going to be those who are better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies. An example from history would be the invention of the printing press. Of course the greater availability of books that followed initially provided a much bigger benefit to the educated than to the illiterate. However, not only were more people able to take advantage of cheaper, more abundant, books as literacy rates increased -- the abundance itself helped to drive that increase. Similarly, while this example from Bangalore shows that, initially, the more well connected have been able to take better advantage of the opening up of land record data, it is not difficult to imagine how the less fortunate will also benefit. The opening up of the data has exposed many problems with the records, allowing for the possibility that those issues will be addressed, and more care will be taken to guard against such issues in the future. Also, there will certainly be opportunities for some enterprising people among the poor to take advantage of the newly available data -- opportunities which did not exist at all when the information was effectively hidden. After all, the "ferociously competitive people" didn't actually "grab hold of" the data -- it's still open for access by anyone.

This case does demonstrate how the growing divide between the digital haves and have-nots is self-perpetuating, and it is certainly worthwhile to pursue efforts to close that gap by promoting education and the development of more widely available, cheaper technology. And efforts should be made to insure that access to open data is not abused by the better off to gain advantage over the poor. But in the end, the open data itself is not the culprit.

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  1. icon
    Jay (profile), 14 Sep 2010 @ 4:26pm

    Ahhh... seems to me a bit of an anomaly in terminology there which is likely to lead to a misinformed debate.

    Being more "open" with data does not mean putting it on the web. This can technically mean you are being more "exclusive" with data by ensuring that one group has more access than another.

    Equal openness of data is a good thing full stop, as long as you are providing equal access to that data to all members who have cause to benefit from it.

    Digitising data makes it more easily accessed and shared, but we need to make sure the equality of openness is maintained. This may often mean NOT putting it on the web and having to request the data from a desk jockey somewhere.

    Lets not confuse the argument of ability of access to data with equality of access to data.

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