Rufus Pollock (co-founder of OKFN) met with the OKFNAU Melbourne ambassadors as part of his visit to Australia in the first days of September. During this visit to Melbourne, I had the pleasure to sit with him to discuss the work of organizations focused on Open Government Data (OGD), such as OKFN, as well as the work done by Freedom of Information advocacy groups. This is the recount of my thesis topic as well as some of the contributions made by R. Pollock to this discussion.
In the past 5 years, the concept of accessing governmental information has been extended to cover the idea of having access not only to information but also raw digital data, known as Open Government Data.
“Open data is data that can be freely used, reused and redistributed by anyone – subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and sharealike”. OpenDefinition.org
OGD has gone from non-existent to being a key feature for government officials, practitioners and advocates in just a few years. However, these developments would be unthinkable without the previous work (mainly during late 90's and early 2000s) of FOI advocacy groups (internationally and domestically). To exercise the right to access government documents and information was the first step to make this OGD movement a reality. That possibility to access government information together with the developments in ICT set the basis to this trend.
As Pollock mentioned, Open Government Data “has been easier than FOI in certain ways. We are also in the right place at the right time”.
This statement rises up the strong correlation between the information environment and the initiatives arising from within that environment. Stiglitz‘s concept of information asymmetry can be applied to explaining some important differences between FOI and OGD, as they were introduced into environments with different levels of information asymmetry. In general, government secrecy was considered a natural operating norm before FOI reforms, however, nowadays, secrecy has to be justified.
Moreover, even though Freedom of Information and Open Government Data movements share many points in common, unlike FOI advocacy organizations, groups working on OGD are focused not so much on the advocacy to get greater access but on the use/reuse of the data. Creating tools to add value to the data is one of OGD's organizations primary tasks.
The FOI community has been mainly focused on the access while OGD groups are also dedicated to the reuse of the disclosed data. These differences also explain the diverse approaches to their relationship with governments. In a matter of generalization (as there is no one model which fits them all), FOI organizations have focused on demanding access to information (usually via a request under FOI legislation). Thus, their relationships tend to bit more “confrontational” (specially when governments don't enact legislation on the topic or, where legislation is available, they refuse to disclose the requested information). Meanwhile, OGD movement is looking for a more cooperative relationship with governments. The difference resides in the fact that, in general, these groups work with the data the governments are willing to disclose.
Most of the advocates for FOI laws came from the transparency and accountability fields (and it has been largely a lawyers’ domain, setting a legalistic approach to the initiatives and adding to the confrontational relationship with governments) while advocates for greater government data openness come from a diverse number of fields. That is so, in the first place, because many sectors are interested in accessing and reusing open government data. Not only transparency advocates are interested in opening government data. As R. Pollock stated OGD “has presented a broader coalition of people who wanted it”. Corporations, academics, and programmers are also part of that movement that was previously a transparency-advocates-only field. Government digital data in reusable formats can be the primary source for economic growth, innovative business, development as well as greater transparency.
Even though these two approaches to government data and information are complementary, these two groups are not closely collaborating with each other, as one could imagine. Differences in approaches, languages, skills seem to build some barriers for their interaction. However, those differences are the key elements that make this collaboration necessary. To have provisions on formats for disclosure, to have clear licenses for the use, to count with more politically sensitive information proactively disclosed, to solve accountability problems with new tools, they are all tasks which require a closer collaboration from these two groups. Hopefully they both soon realize that if they approach their work in a collaborative fashion, they will get better results, not only to fulfill their mission but also for the well-being of citizens.
 I would like to thank Pia Waugh and David Flanders for helping me to participate in this meeting. I would also like to thank Rick Snell for his valuable comments. Another version of this post: http://www.ogphub.org/blog/ogd-and-foi-different-approaches-to-government-information-and-data/
 If you have some comments, thoughts and/or materials on this topic you would like to share, please contact me @Silvanavf