It is quite well described what are open data. We can have some thoughts on what open data activist is doing. But still we do not know what he or she have in their heart and why the hell they are doing that.

Right now*

Remember the famous Sex Pistols song Anarchy in the UK? Its leader Johnny Rotten sang: “I don’t know what I want but I know how to get it”? It seems that it was also — although unconscious — the slogan of open data movement. We did not actually know what is the aim of opening the data but we knew they should be in open format, raw and with metadata.

After attending three Personal Democracy Forums events this year (Gdańsk,New York and Kyiv) I have the feeling that open data community is coming back to look for the answer for the question what do they want. What do we want.

The answer is even more needed after recent developments in the world politics. The move towards non liberal (whatever it means) democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, Brexit, possible win of Marine Le Pen in France and Donald Trump in USA is happening in countries which have developed IT infrastructure and developed open data tools and projects.

What is that we really want? Better services? More transparency? More machine-readable formats? Or better democracy? For sure better services and more transparency can improve democracy but too often we are fooled by technological novelties and cool apps to forget that open data as the international movement should seek the key to implement sustainable democratic standards. So far I have not heard any of US President candidates speaking on open data at their conventions. They are addressing their electorate with nice slogans on democracy. Why? Because this is what is opening hearts of the people. Although we all know that they will not keep their promises.

It’s coming sometime and maybe

On the other hand, we can observe Google and its personalized (often biased) search, ambiguous role of media (and their political influence), and new technologies used to gather allies for political parties or for a undemocratic cause. We are more and more aware that on the same level that technology supports pluralism and liberties, it helps authoritarian regimes and nondemocratic forces to reach their goals. It is especially easy if one understands democracy as the rule of people rather than rule of law. The latter means that the country have strong system of check and balance and is protecting minorities against unlimited power of the majority. Rule of people may sometimes justify controversial steps made by those in power.

I am not the only one who is careful in convincing others that open data will lead society to more democratic system. It helps but only when it is followed by the open heart. For that reason so many open data activists are adding the term empathy.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary empathy means “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”. As the general rule introduced in continental civil law one cannot exercise one’s right in a manner contradictory to its social and economic purpose or the principles of community life. It means that apart from blindly following what the law states we have to apply it to the environment we live in and make no harm to others. I would extend that to the obligation to support others.

How many ways to get what you want

That’s it. While thinking about our role we should not concentrate only on helping people in getting around the city on the public transport or adopting the tree. We should not be happy only when our government is using open contracting or open spending standards. It is a serious and important commitment but it should be seen as the part of general attitude of democratic authorities. If they are opening the access to their spendings they must also stay open for its critique and be responsive in the way to have political will to change fiscal policy that will fight inequalities. But we also have protect other values that just transparency and responsiveness.

Therefore, do we really need to be non-partisan? Be blind to examples of spreading non-democratic standards? I think we have to be tough on this. We can understand being non-partisan as being indifferent for the division for left and right (although this traditional division seems to be blurred nowadays) but we can’t accept and remain silent when human rights are breached, when democratic standards are flooded by the rule of force, where freedom of speech is just an excuse for hate speech.

The Omidyar’s report Engines of Change: What Civic Tech Can Learn from Social Movements proved that open data community lack common identity and values. Is it we don’t have time to talk or we are indifferent to world’s problems? Or maybe we are expecting that we should have answers for all questions and thinking about common identity will left us with doubts rather than with certainty.

I am scared about what is happening in the world right now and I am terrified of what I will witness in next couple of months. Maybe this fear is something that can unite all those who want equal, fair and open democratic country. American writer Marylin Ferguson once said that “ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom”. While it sounds a bit naive it might tell us something about ourselves. If we are afraid of what is going around us it means that we have a common identity and our aim is to create the environment in which nobody should have a fear of discrimination, lack of access to health service or to fear any decision taken by governments and its agencies.

*subheadings are taken from Sex Pistols “Anarchy in UK” lyrics

by Krzysztof Izdebski