Open-data advocates can hold the powerful to account

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There was a rare blue sky hanging over London’s Dexter House conference centre, the venue for a big data conference hosted by SciDev.Net, as I hurried up to it this morning. And the clear weather was matched by a set of lucid talks.

Out of what was a fascinating morning, I wanted to pick out some remarks from Brad Parks, who took to the stage early on to deliver a keynote talk. Parks is co-executive director at AidData, a research lab based at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, United States.

He began his talk with a vital question: “Can we parley the data revolution into a revolution of accountability?” Several delegates echoed this note of caution at sessions throughout the morning, asking variations of the question: “What are we actually collecting all this data for?”

Parks suggested a handful of conditions he thinks need to be in place to ensure the huge volumes of data nations generate translate into mounting accountability. On top of straightforward access to data, these included data literacy among citizens, feedback mechanisms to return their views to policymakers and commitment from those same officials to actually respond to concerns.

“Without having these in place, we risk launching a revolution that provides a great deal of information and very little accountability,” he said.

But one of Parks’ ideas stood out for me. It was the concept of an ‘infomediary’ — a person who has cultivated special knowledge of open-data tools in their region and can act as a go-to figure for their local community, offering informal support and helping to spread an attitude of data for accountability.

It seemed to me like Parks’ criteria would be useful for any open-data advocate to keep in mind. After all, as he intimated in his talk: “If data isn’t used it really isn’t very useful.” And surely holding the powerful to account is a use we can all get behind.

Joshua Howgego is SciDev.Net’s deputy news and opinions editor.