For many of us who have campaigned for the right to access and reuse government information, it would be easy to pause and relish the sweet victory. We have the ammunition, so now, believe the most techno-utopian advocates, open data will fundamentally change politics—depoliticizing debates and eliminating irresponsible positions.
But that would be a mistake.
Now we must renew the much larger battle over the role of evidence in public policy. On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.
Governments, lobbyists, and other vested interests have always tried to shape public perception to their advantage through data—hence the line about “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Our future will not be filled with a greater consensus on how to solve problems but by new debates over what, how, and why data are collected in service of public discourse. These political fights will be painful and they will matter. A lot.