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
    Chris Maresca (profile), 14 Sep 2010 @ 3:39pm

    There is precedence for this...

    ... in 1086, William the Conqueror used the Doomsday book to gather data about all assets in England and, in the process, made sure that assets were transferred from Anglo-Saxons to Normans. The data gathering methods were open hearings, which had the side-effect of making sure that everyone knew which Anglo-Saxons were challenging Norman rule.

    Fast forward 1000 years, and it seems a similar open process is being used to disenfranchise people with less power.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2010 @ 3:51pm

    This is another reason why we need to destroy media monopolies. Cableco/telco monopolies should be abolished so that anyone can compete on the same infrastructure and provide broadband so that broadband can be cheaper for everyone and more people can afford it. Also, I wouldn't mind if the govt (or Google or someone) provided a 1800 dialup number for free 53K internet access.

    As far as being able to exploit and respond to the data, making it open to everyone gives more people, with lower income, the ability to exploit data. Who's to say that the data holders or those in privileged positions (with more money or in various govt or other positions) won't be able to get a hold of data that isn't available to the general public. Chances are the rich will be able to get a hold of the data and exploit it no matter what, even if it's not on the net. Making it on the net gives more people of lower income a more level playing field and it makes it harder for the rich to use that knowledge to take advantage of the rest of the population in ways that the rest of the population would otherwise be unaware of.

    Not to mention it allows a larger group to more easily monitor what data is out there, figure who can misuse it and how, and to organize ways to prevent its misuse against people who would otherwise easily be exploited. If the data is closed who is to say that the data holders themselves can be trusted not to misuse that data. The data is far less likely to be misused if its open because more people can be aware of its possible misuse and act to ensure that it doesn't get misused. A much larger population is far less susceptible to abuse than a small population of data holders and those who know those data holders and have special ties with them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    PrometheeFeu (profile), 14 Sep 2010 @ 6:31pm

    I think what this example shows is that more open data can also have negative consequences. While I favor openness in general, there are probably some cases where opening data is in fact harmful. Let's not get religious here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 14 Sep 2010 @ 10:06pm


    '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.'

    And that is the point being made in this article. Everyone is able to access this data, as long as they can get to the offices where it is stored, get online, or probably pay a processing fee to have it delivered to them. If you know what you need. The issue is that without the ability to access this data, it is not, in fact, very 'open.'

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Patrick Durusau (profile), 15 Sep 2010 @ 2:19am

    Exploiting the Poor

    Two things tend to get missed in the "digital divide" discussions:

    1) Read "digital divide" as "technology divide" and you can predict the winner of every encounter in history.

    2) People like winning.

    Can you guess based on #2 how successful the efforts will be to eliminate #1?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Sep 2010 @ 7:35am

    Re: Re:

    Also, public libraries usually have the Internet and most public libraries are open to the public.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Gene Cavanaugh, 15 Sep 2010 @ 8:22pm

    Opening up records (transparency)

    So true, Michael! Opaqueness is like a layer hiding a festering wound; the longer we have a lack of openness, the more serious the illness will become.
    Transparency is like opening the wound for treatment. We may find things we don't like. In many cases, they already existed, but we weren't aware of them, or even if new, the openness does make at least the perception of harm worse. In the long term, though, the wound can heal, largely because it is now open to inspection.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    JNomics (profile), 16 Sep 2010 @ 7:54am

    The Desirability of Open Architecture

    I agree that the data (being open) is not the culprit in this instance; but if we can anticipate an undesirable end use caused by an open structure, then should we entertain alternative, stricter architectures that could achieve a more positive end? It doesn't make sense to remain committed to an ideal when it fails to achieve the ends the idealists desired in the first place. That is, do we think that open architectures are always desirable?


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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