Seeing Like a Geek

by tom_slee on June 25, 2012

Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen many men, I guess;
Some will rob you with a six gun,
And some with a GIS. 

In the state of Tamil Nadu, near the town of Marakkanam, right next to a reserved forest, lies a contested plot of land. Records say these three acres belong to a member of the Mudaliar caste, but lower-caste Dalits living nearby claim the plot should be part of the reserved forest, which is not privately owned. The Dalits claim that the Mudaliars have pulled a fast one, using their influence in the local bureaucracy to fix the land records, and that older records will bear out the Dalit claim. Complicating the case, officials say that boundaries between land parcels in the area are often difficult to ascertain.1


According to Bhuvaneswari Raman, the Dalit claim was sideswiped by a Tamil Nadu government program to standardize, digitize and centralize land records. The program, promoted by the World Bank as a pro-poor, pro-transparency initiative, was undertaken to capitalize on the boom in nearby Chennai. The absence of clear land titles made extensive land purchases time consuming and expensive, and this was a bottleneck to large-scale development projects. As part of the program, the Tamil Nadu government declared that the digitized records would be the only evidence admissable in court for land claims, so the older records and less precise data that formed the basis of the Dalit claims lost any legal footing they had, and their claim was sunk.2


A new generation of land developers grew up alongside the digitized records: firms with the skills and information to make efficient use of this new resource. These developers lobbied effectively for records and spatial data to be made open, and then used their advantages to displace smaller firms who, as Raman writes, "relied on their knowledge of local histories and relationships to assemble land for development". The effects went far beyond the three-acre plot near Marakkanan: newly visible master plans became used as "the reference point to label legal and illegal spaces and as a justification for evicting the poor from their economic and residential spaces." The "pro-poor" initiative turned out to be anything but. Tamil Nadu was not alone in running an open data project that made life harder for the poor; neighbouring Karnataka’s "Bhoomi" (or ‘land’) e-governance program has had similar effects: a 2007 publication concluded that "the digitization of land records led to increased corruption, much more bribes and substantially increased time taken for land transactions. At another level, it facilitated very large players in the land markets to capture vast quantities of land at a time when Bangalore experiences a boom in the land market."3


The open data doppelgänger


Making data "open" has two effects:


  1. By cutting the price of the data to zero, for everyone and for any purpose, it undermines the power of those who previously controlled access to it.


  2. Just as cheap fish increases the demand for chips, so free data increases the demand for, and raises the value of, complementary resources and skills.


Effect 1 has many benefits, both real and potential. While all point out that open data is just one part of a complete breakfast, the essays by Victoria Stodden, Tom Lee and Matthew Yglesias in this seminar highlight the possibilities for improved accountability in government, those by Clay Shirky and Steven Berlin Johnson focus on the possibilities for improved services, and Beth Noveck emphasizes the possibilities for enhanced participation.4


But there is an inevitable flip side to open data, which is the rise of new markets in its complements (effect 2). The point of this post is to draw attention to this open government data doppelgänger—-the shadow of commercial interests that follow civic hackers wherever they go; the new markets that spring up inevitably from the ruins of the old—-and to its dangers. I am suspicious of this doppelgänger: more so than most open data proponents, who tend to use the language of entrepreneurship and innovation when discussing companies who work with open data, and who contrast the new firms with the aging business models they seek to replace, and they often present commercial use as a complement to civic use.5


The problem is, it’s not just that new markets and new businesses replace old ones. The markets undermined by open data are generally traditional in structure, characterised by decreasing returns, with market power that is distributed and limited in scope. Before digitization, the property developers of Tamil Nadu had particular knowledge about land ownership patterns in a specific area and each used that knowledge to build their own little empire. In contrast, constant fixed costs and zero marginal costs are "the baseline case" for information goods,6 so markets in open data environments are likely to consist of a few, big firms, each with significant market power. It’s no surprise that the new generation of property developers in Tamil Nadu were larger than those they displaced.


The dynamic is familiar from other "open" movements and from previous price changes forced by digitization. A range of institutions have been overthrown (with much rhetoric about the stifling effect of "gatekeepers" and the democratizing nature of the Internet), only to be replaced by fewer, bigger institutions.


  • The digitization of books undermined publishers and booksellers, and gave us a great big Amazonian bookseller/publisher.


  • The digitization of video pulled the market from under the feet of Blockbuster and from independent video stores, and now we have Netflix.


  • The mass sharing of digital music toppled major music labels, and saw the global rise of iTunes as the whole world’s music store.


All this is, of course, very general, but the downsides of open data are real and need to be addressed. Describing them as paradoxical "unintended consequences" (see Tauberer7 p 14) suggests they are anomalous edge cases, which misses the ubiquity of the problem.


Effective use: empowering the empowered


A small chorus of voices has been calling attention to the dangers of the open data’s free-market doppelgänger, particularly in countries where the gap between rich and poor is large. Bhuvaneswari Raman, Solomon Benjamin and others’ work (above) around land record digitization in India are one set of voices.8 Another is Michael Gurstein, a leading light in the field of "community informatics" who has been constructively raising concerns about how open data may "empower the empowered" for some time. The skills and resources needed to make "effective use" are complements to data.9 As just one case, Gurstein quotes from a recent study of who uses the British mySociety TheyWorkForYou.com open government initiative:10



"people above the age of 54 tend to be over-represented, while dangers younger than 45 are under-represented in comparison to the Internet population. In terms of demographics there is a strong male bias and a strong overrepresentation of people with a university degree that also translates into strong participation from high income groups… One in five users (21%) of the site has not been politically active within the last year"



Gurstein comments that:



this attempt to enhance democratic participation has ended up providing an additional opportunity for those who already, because of their income, education, and overall conventional characteristics of higher status (age, gender etc.) have the means to communicate with and influence politicians. The additional information and an additional communications channel thus has the effect of reinforcing patterns of opportunity that are already there rather than widening the base of participation and influence. (link)



Another dissenting voice is Kentaro Toyama, an expert in the use of information technology for development. He argues that "in contexts where literacy and social capital are unevenly distributed, technology tends to amplify inequalities rather than reduce them. An email account cannot make you more connected unless you have some existing social network to build on." Again, in thinking about the effects of new technologies we must look at the complements to the technology, and how those complements shape new markets.11


Seeing like a geek


Shunning the free-market doppelgänger can have a positive effect on outcomes.


Development studies scholar Kevin Donovan12 sees similarities between open data efforts and the demands of the state as described in James Scott’s "Seeing Like a State".13 Open standards and structured, machine-readable data are key parts of the open data programme.14 For Donovan this formalization and standardization is "far more value-laden than typically considered". Open data programmes, like the state, seek to "make society legible through simplification". Standardized data, like the state, "operate[s] over a multitude of communities and attempt[s] to eliminate cultural norms through standardization". He writes:



Eliminating illegibilty in this way reduces the public’s political autonomy because it enables powerful entities to act on a greater scale. Scott argued, ‘A thoroughly legible society eliminates local monopolies of information and creates a kind of national transparency through the uniformity of codes, identities, statistics, regulations and measures. At the same time it is likely to create new positional advantages for those at the apex who have the knowledge and access to easily decipher the new state-created format’



Open data undermines the power of those who benefit from "the idiosyncracies and complexities of communities… Local residents [who] understand the complexity of their community due to prolonged exposure." The Bhoomi land records program is an example of this: it explicitly devalues informal knowledge of particular places and histories, making it legally irrelevant; in the brave new world of open data such knowledge is trumped by the ability to make effective queries of the "open" land records.15 The valuing of technological facility over idiosyncratic and informal knowledge is baked right in to open data efforts.


More encouragingly, Donovan looks at how some "data geeks" recognized their own myopia in the Map Kibera project. The project started as a community-mapping project to trace the massive Nairobi slum. Some questioned the need for the project as "locals [already] knew their surroundings intimately", arguing that making mapping information available would more likely benefit external parties than the residents themselves.


The problems the project seeks to address (Kibera’s poverty and marginalization) were of the class Donovan calls "wicked" problems: ill-defined, tangled, and resistant to technological fixes. However, "Although it began as an example of misdiagnosing a wicked problem… as a tame one (insufficient information availability), Map Kibera has admirably grown beyond a reductionist approach"; it has expanded to include other forms of activity such as citizen reporting, and has taken steps to ensure local ownership of the project. The project has moved beyond a technological goal to a set of social goals. Its list of sponsors, interestingly, includes only non-commercial organizations.


Donovan contrasts Map Kibera’s evolution with that of commercial, and more narrowly technological mapping projects, such as Google’s Map Maker initiatives which have been accused of unethical "exploitation of open communities." The danger of such projects is that, by eliminating the illegibility that privileges local knowledge over outsider knowledge, they may allow "more powerful entities to see like a slum" and benefit those already in power.16


When it comes to development programs, Donovan concludes, making data available is not enough. Instead, transparency must be linked with deliberative development. Effecting social change cannot avoid the need to actually address underlying dynamics of power.


Have you considered the benefits of an alarm system?


Combining open data with its complements is a step on the road to surveillance.


One of the most valuable complements to open data is, of course, other data (mashups!): a bus schedule is more valuable if you can combine it with a map. This combinatorial aspect of open data raises problems for government-collected data, as legal scholars Teresa Scassa and Lisa M. Campbell highlighted recently, because data protection legislation "typically requires that information collected for specific purposes should not be used for other purposes without consent."


Scassa and Campbell look how "even relatively low quality spatial data may attract the application of data protection or privacy law, particularly when it is matched or combined with other data sets".17 Take, for example, Ottawa Police’s crime mapping tool (link), which is a map of calls for police assistance provided through a collaboration between Ottawa Police and US company Public Engines. If insurance companies make decisions about rates or insurability based on the crime-mapping data, or if security companies use it to target specific areas for marketing campaigns ("Did you know there were three robberies on your street in the last two months? Would you like a visit from one of our salespeople?") then this site could be violating those conditions.


Again, it is worth thinking about what knowledge increases in value and what is displaced when local data is made digitally public in this way. Brandon, Manitoba released property tax and assessment for every single property in town (here). For residents of Brandon, and particularly for local real-estate agents, this data release will not tell them a lot that is new. But now you don’t need to know anything about Brandon—even where it is—to have a good idea of the wealth level of each inhabitant. Who cares about such stuff? The people who attend the Toronto Dx3 Canada event in January, for sure: "the first and only trade show dedicated to Digital Marketing, Digital Advertising and Digital Retail, is offering attendees the chance to get intimate with the City of Toronto’s Open Data Initiative."


Open data advocates commonly address privacy issues by reference to personally identifiable information, but there is no clear dividing line between data that identifies individuals and data that doesn’t. It is well known that the right way to think of privacy when it comes to data made available in a "release and forget" manner (which open data is by definition) is in terms of information entropy or, to be less jargony, in a twenty-questions kind of way. Each question reveals a little more about the subject; no one question tells us what we need to know, but by successive filtering we arrive at the only possible answer.18


The commercial potential of combining open government data with other data sets is an irresistible temptation for the open data goppelganger, regardless of the privacy consequences. There is a need for vigilance against its vulnerability to these temptations.


Reining in the doppelgänger


When I have brought up conflicts between markets and civic open data initiatives, I have occasionally been accused of cynicism and negativity (who me?) and exhorted to "get involved" instead. Many open data activists sees themselves as being idealistic and positive yet they retain a deep cynicism of government agencies while maintaining faith in the market’s ability to maintain diversity and consumer power. I find it odd to see this combination of attitudes in a movement that often describes itself in egalitarian terms.


The faith in markets sometimes goes further among open data advocates. It’s not just that open data can create new markets, there is a substantial portion of the push for open data that is explicitly seeking to create new markets as an alternative to providing government services. Influential advocate Tim O’Reilly claims not to be in favour of such an agenda (see comment here), but his "Government as Platform" initiative has been readily adopted by many who are.


In a recent paper, Jo Bates highlights the way in which open government data programs can be used as a form of privatization and deregulation: a deliberate attempt to create new markets in "Public Sector Information (PSI) reuse" instead of providing government services. Here is a summarizing quotation that I’ve used before:



the current ‘transparency agenda’ [of the UK government, supported by prominent Open data advocates] should be recognised as an initiative that also aims to enable the marketisation of public services, and this is something that is not readily apparent to the general observer. Further, whilst democratic ends are claimed in the desire to enable ‘the public’ to hold ‘the state’ to account via these measures, there is an issue in utilising a dichotomy between the state and a notion of ‘the public’ which does not differentiate between citizens and commercial interests… The construction… encourages those attracted to civic engagement into an embrace of solidarity with profit seeking interests, distanced from the ever suspect notion of the state.19



Here is the kind of activity that now comes under "open data" initiatives (again from Jo Bates, here):



[T]here has been significant lobbying by the financial industry to get better access to UK weather data so that it is able to compete in this [weather risk management] market. Groups such as the Lighthill Risk Network, of which Lloyds of London are a member, have lobbied government for better weather data so that they can develop risk based weather products. Similarly, the insurance industry has requested real time information on the pretext that they might respond more quickly to extreme weather events such as flooding. My own research and the recent announcement suggest that these demands have been met enthusiastically by well placed policy makers in national government who are keen to develop a UK weather derivatives market.



Weather risk management might seem like an odd duck, but Bates reports that "This weather risk management market far outweighs the USA’s commercial weather products market which in 2000 was estimated at approximately $500 million a year", touching over $45 billion in 2005-06.


Welcoming corporate involvement in open data activities will lead to new Amazons and Apples, while undermining the community activism that is the movement’s strong point. Whatever we think of Amazon and Apple from a consumer point of view, it is difficult to see how their rise has positive political outcomes.


A final example: one of the leading companies in the open data space is Palantir Technologies, highlighted by the civic-minded Code for America ("The success of Palantir or Socrata in offering innovative, web 2.0-style services for government shows the way forward for new government-focused enterprise companies." – here), a sponsor of O’Reilly’s gov 2.0 summit (link) and adopter of "Government as a Platform" terminology, and an early partner of USAid’s Food Security Open Data Challenge. And what do we know about Palantir? It is hooked closely in to US intelligence agencies, with early funding by the CIA through its [In-Q-Tel] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-Q-Tel) venture capital arm and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, both organizations known for their profound commitment to openness and equality. It is deeply involved in anti-terrorism programmes. Peter Thiel is Palantir’s Chairman of the Board: perhaps he will be pursuing open data projects for the secretive Bilderberg Group, on whose Steering Committee he sits?


Are there ways to rein in open data’s free-marker doppelgänger? The parallels between the economics of information goods and the economics of cultural goods can give us some ideas for dealing with the new oligopolies that threaten to grow around open data.


One lesson of cultural economics is that creative works for which there is significant demand in a small market can be swamped by near-zero-marginal cost exports from large markets. It is more profitable for TV stations in smaller markets to broadcast cheap American shows than it is to broadcast more expensive home-grown material, even in cases where the latter would draw a bigger audience, because cultural producers seek to cover their costs in their home market and are typically sell at discounted rates elsewhere.


To maintain cultural diversity in the face of winner-take-all markets, governments in smaller countries have designed a toolbox of interventions. The contents include production subsidies, broadcast quotas, spending rules, national ownership, and competition policy. In general, such measures have received support from those with a left-leaning outlook.20


Unfortunately the Open Data Movement demands that data be provided without borders and in a uniform way: machine processable, available to anyone, and license-free.21 It mandates non-discriminatory licensing, focuses on standards-based formats, and generally insists that data be accessible to rich and poor alike, like justice and the Ritz. It insists that any measures governments would like to take to favour—-for example—-non-commercial users or local users, be taken off the table. It strikes me as bizarre that this logic has gained such a significant hold among left-leaning digital enthusiasts that it has become orthodoxy.


I am not convinced that a coherent case can be made for "open data" as a public good, independent of the social changes that must accompany it, until the movement confronts its doppelgänger. This will require putting far more emphasis on experimentation in standards, licensing, and selective provision of data at the municipal and higher levels of government to ensure that what is a potentially valuable public resource is not plundered by those with the digital skills and resources to make most use of it.


Footnotes





  1. The case is discussed by Bhuvaneswari Raman, The Rhetoric and Reality of Transparency, Journal of Community Informatics, 8(2), 2012, available here.


  2. Bhuvaneswari Raman, Solomon Benjamin and others have done extensive research around the impact of Karnataka state’s "Bhoomi" (or ‘land’) e-governance program (web site) to digitize 20-million land records. See references listed in Raman[^fn1] and particularly here (PDF).


  3. The quotations are from Raman, footnote 1.


  4. See Joshua Tauberer’s self-published Open Government Data, available here, for a history by a proponent. See the home pages of Code for America, Sunlight Foundation, and mySociety for typical self-descriptions of the movement.


  5. A provocative example is Government Data and the Invisible Hand, by David G. Robinson, Harlan Yu, William P. Zeller, and Edward W. Felten, available here and the subject of some debate here.


  6. Hal R. Varian, Joseph Farrell, and Carl Shapiro, The Economics of Information Technology: an Introduction, Cambridge University Press 2004, p3.


  7. See Joshua Tauberer’s self-published Open Government Data, available here, for a history by a proponent. See the home pages of Code for America, Sunlight Foundation, and mySociety for typical self-descriptions of the movement.


  8. The case is discussed by Bhuvaneswari Raman, The Rhetoric and Reality of Transparency, Journal of Community Informatics, 8(2), 2012, available here.


  9. See Open Data: Empowering the empowered of effective data use for everyone?, First Monday, 16(2), 2011, available here. Also a longer blog post on the same topic and other entries at his blog.


  10. Tobias Escher, Analysis of users and usage for UK Citizens Online Democracy, May 2011, available here (PDF).


  11. See Toyama’s talk Ten myths about technology and development, summarized here and available on YouTube here. Also see his contributions to the Boston Review forum Can Technology End Poverty? and his blog The ICT4D Jester.


  12. Kevin Donovan’s excellent short paper Seeing Like a Slum, appears in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 13(1), 97-104, 2012 and is available here.


  13. Seeing Like a State was discussed in these parts a few years ago here and here, as well as by Brad DeLong.


  14. See the 8 Principles of Open Government Data spelled out in 2007 here. These principles have "become the de facto starting point for evaluating openness in government records".


  15. For examples of "Data-Driven Government" proponents see this talk by New York City CTO Rachel Sterne, The Data Driven City,and Citivox.


  16. Mikel Maron, We Need to Stop Google’s Exploitation of Open Communities, blog post, 11 April 2011. Available here. See also the controversy over an agreement between Google and the World Bank over the use of its Map Maker program over OpenStreetMap, here and here for example.


  17. See Teresa Scassa and Lisa M. Campbell, Data Protection, Privacy and Spatial Data, in R. Devillers & H. Goodchild, eds. Proceedings of the 6th International Symposium on Spatial Data Quality, Taylor & Francis, 2009, pp. 211-220, available here.


  18. I wrote a summary of the jargon and issues here. A recent paper by Paul Ohm has prompted much thought: Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failures of Anonymization, University of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 09-12, available here (PDF). A response to Ohm by Ann Cavoukian and Khaled El Emam (PDF) emphasizes that the concept of "personally identifiable information" retains much value, but in conjunction with other limits on the use (and users) of data: they are concerned primarily with health researchers’ ability to access rich data sources.


  19. Jo Bates, "This is what modern deregulation looks like": co-optation and contestation in the shaping of the UK’s Open Government Data initiative, Journal of Community Informatics, 8(2), 2012, available here.


  20. See Peter S. Grant and Chris Wood, Blockbusters and Trade Wars, Douglas and McIntyre 2004.


  21. See the 8 Principles of Open Government Data spelled out in 2007 here. These principles have "become the de facto starting point for evaluating openness in government records".

{ 125 comments }

1

Patrick 06.25.12 at 8:03 pm

In theory, the problems that arise from open data, are not problems with open data at all. They’re problems with our inability to regulate monopoly power. Any industry that has the characteristic of high fixed costs and low/zero marginal costs demands regulation. But the open data wasn’t the problem. Monopoly is a side effect of a technology which makes something that was very expensive, very cheap.

And a system where people are collecting rents due to a combination of land ownership and insider knowledge is not really all that virtuous.

Are issues of unequal distribution and monopoly growing increasingly important? Yes. But blaming the technology that is making things cheaper is exactly the wrong solution to the problem.

2

Paul Duguid 06.25.12 at 8:36 pm

Patrick’s comment (#1) is undoubtedly important, but risks sounding a little like the NRA’s ‘guns don’t kill people …’. Blaming technology is no doubt overly simple, but so too is holding technology blameless. Technology inevitably instantiates power relations and, even though, as in Tamil, it may be summoned in the name of the powerless, the power so instantiated is more likely to be that of the already powerful. If we don’t look at the technology, this combination of bad outcomes resulting from good intentions can be particularly hard to unscramble once in place .

3

C.P. Norris 06.25.12 at 8:43 pm

And a system where people are collecting rents due to a combination of land ownership and insider knowledge is not really all that virtuous.

If a relatively poor group depends on those rents, I am at least as sympathetic to them as I am to first-worlders who question their system’s virtue.

I’m a geek and as much of an open data enthusiast as anyone, but I found Tom’s post fascinating. This should be a great seminar.

4

Wonks Anonymous 06.25.12 at 8:51 pm

Have any of you followed the back-and-forth between Timothy Lee and Eli Dourado that took place a couple weeks back? It started when Lee said he was shifting his opinion on network neutrality in the face of lousy ISP local monopolies and Dourado responded that monopolies can be efficient with price discrimination (which Lee finds inefficient because calling up Comcast and lying to them about switching is annoying). I found the categorization of good vs bad monopolies interesting: Lee has no problems with Apple imposing restrictions on its products (though he has largely been a booster of Google/Android’s greater openness) or airline price discrimination. Nobody likes Comcast. “Seeing Like a State” is cited to explain why the standard efficient monopoly story is insufficient. Speaking of which, I found it odd that Dourado’s Technologies of Resistance and Control didn’t cite Scott, since it seems very much in that vein.

5

aepxc 06.25.12 at 8:55 pm

Could some of these problems be solved with more data – namely, with complete and publicly accessible data about who is looking at whose data. In the digital realm looking/tracking/accessing is just as trackable as any other action. Providing that we push for such tracking to be built in (obviously powerful interests will tend to push back), spying will become much more difficult.

6

JW Mason 06.25.12 at 9:35 pm

This is one of the best posts I have read here in a while. Tom Slee should be a regular!

On the substance, I think it’s critically important to recognize how local rents associated with market inefficiencies are the base — the primary producers — of many social ecosystems. Less consequential, but more familiar than the land rights issues the post leads off with, are bookstores, video stores, etc. When they get disintermediated a small but vital social universe disappears.

The fact that an income consists in some sense of a rent is not an argument against it, in my view. I even think it’s probably reasonable to think that the aggregate rents in the economy remain fairly constant and just get shifted around. From a progressive standpoint, I think we should be asking (a) whether the rents are relatively low or high in the value chain (i.e. decentralized or centralized) and (b) how embedded they are in social norms around their use. So for instance the only newspaper monopoly rents were at least somewhat embedded in a culture of reporting as public service, while the new online rents that have replaced them — despite some hopeful early signs — don’t seem to come with anything similar.

Unfortunately, what to do about it is a harder question. I don’t really know how the lifeworlds of local knowledge can be defended against the system of centralized data. Probably there is something to be learned from how other lifeworlds defend themselves — as Slee suggests, the self-conscious preservation of minority cultures (as, say, in Quebec) might be learned from. That definitely requires violating some liberal norms, though.

7

Matt 06.25.12 at 10:28 pm

Nobody likes Comcast.
Oh, I don’t know- I guess it depends on what your alternatives are, but to me they have been really good, especially compared to the other options. I only use them for internet, but compared to Verizon or Speakeasy (both of which I dealt with for a while) they are great. I mean, I can imagine them being better, of course, but as far as such things go, I’ve generally had good experiences with them.

8

chris 06.25.12 at 11:21 pm

maintaining faith in the market’s ability to maintain diversity and consumer power.

The what? Markets tend toward monopoly unless constantly and aggressively restrained from doing so. Then they tend toward as much oligopoly as regulators will tolerate. Consumer power survives only until someone figures out a way to kill it.

9

William Timberman 06.26.12 at 12:31 am

It seems to me that the highly-touted strengths of totalizing systems are precisely its greatest weaknesses. Your Doppelgänger is vulnerable not only from the uprisings of Dalits of one kind or another, but also from the neuromancy of the geeks who work for its agents. Even if it succeeds in undermining all the economic and cultural relationships of the past, it will inevitably create new ones that escape its attention, let alone its control. In the context of prior CT seminars — those on Debt, and Red Plenty — this one on open data appears to me to be a logical extension of both. A history, not of the past, but of the future, if you like. In any case, I look forward to it.

10

PJW 06.26.12 at 1:04 am

Lots of interesting detail on Tom Slee’s general point about the digitization of books in Ken Auletta’s longish article published in the latest New Yorker. The abstract is here:
http://m.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/06/25/120625fa_fact_auletta

11

John Quiggin 06.26.12 at 1:53 am

I enjoyed this a lot, but I don’t like the stuff cited by Gurstein (about what used to be called the ‘digital divide’) for a couple of reasons

First, as the disappearance of the ‘digital divide’ catchphrase has shown, a lot of this was just the difference between early and late adopters, for technologies that rapidly became nearly universal (not entirely, and there are some problems there, but different kinds of problems).

Second, it’s setting up an impossible standard. Sure, the Internet hasn’t produced a situation where everyone is actively and equally involved in political debate, but the relevant question is whether the debate is open to more people, and a broader section of the public, than it was before, and the answer in general is “Yes”

12

shah8 06.26.12 at 1:58 am

These effects are also true of things like microcredit and centralized distant markets + transportation. Greater visibility for those at the apex results in ruination, starvation, and suicide for the peeps at the bottom without vigorous government regulation about what data is actionable. I mean, you wouldn’t want to go back to the days without insider trading laws, even if they are honored in the breach, now, would you?

Now, India, on the other hand, is a somewhat unique socio-economic entity, and there are a number of curveballs, including the whole Dalit social dynamics, the issues with transportation, and the matroshka-nested system of rent-seeking that make it politically impossible to do much of anything but be corrupt.

13

John Quiggin 06.26.12 at 2:00 am

Reference to Palantir reminded me of the HBGary plan to attack Glenn Greenwald, in which they were involved
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HBGary

14

ajay 06.26.12 at 2:22 am

The digitization of books undermined publishers and booksellers, and gave us a great big Amazonian bookseller/publisher.

This is just not true, and makes me wonder about whether anything else in the article is load-bearing. Amazon’s rise to dominance predates the e-book; as any fule kno, Amazon started off selling real, physical books, and AFAIK most of the books it sells are still real, physical books. Slee’s either making stuff up to suit his point, or he literally does not know the first thing about online commerce – yes, “Amazon is an online bookseller” is the first thing you need to know about online commerce.

15

david 06.26.12 at 2:22 am

A new generation of land developers grew up alongside the digitized records: firms with the skills and information to make efficient use of this new resource. These developers lobbied effectively for records and spatial data to be made open, and then used their advantages to displace smaller firms who, as Raman writes, “relied on their knowledge of local histories and relationships to assemble land for development”…

So, substituting one monopoly for another.

Isn’t it almost always the case that the very poor will have a comparative advantage in things which are antithetical to development? This seems like merely a symptom of a general problem, not specific to technological innovation. Dalits have heritable monopolies over labour-intensive garbage collection and sewerage management and they will fight any attempt to displace them with capital-intensive methods, even if In The Long Run nobody’s kid is going to have a brilliant future collecting garbage.

At some point egalitarianism demands a society where some people don’t spend their lives collecting nightsoil when it is technologically feasible to install sewerage pipes and this, yes, entails someone’s livelihood ceasing to exist.

Every labour-intensive agricultural economy since World War II has seemed liable to spending all their political energies on zero-sum land reform. Great for aggregate welfare, but exponential cumulative growth has always trumped that in a matter of decades.

16

Belle Waring 06.26.12 at 4:14 am

Really fascinating, and it’s refreshing to see real live footnotes in a blog post instead of mere snarky remarks.

17

ajay 06.26.12 at 5:05 am

this attempt to enhance democratic participation has ended up providing an additional opportunity for those who already, because of their income, education, and overall conventional characteristics of higher status (age, gender etc.) have the means to communicate with and influence politicians.

This, too, seems like the product of unclear thinking. If transparency efforts expose political decision making by rich middle-aged guys to outside scrutiny, that is a good thing – for everyone – even if such scrutiny is in practice mainly carried out by other rich middle-aged guys. You can’t say “well, power still rests with the rich middle-aged guys therefore nothing has changed”.

18

Tom C 06.26.12 at 5:43 am

Tamil Nadu does not exactly map onto a standard “oppression score-card.” The most oppressed group there are the Tamil-brahmins, who have more or less been chased out of the region. Oh, and Dalits aren’t “lower-caste”–they are outside of the caste system and have no caste.

19

John Quiggin 06.26.12 at 6:04 am

@ajay, I already made your second objection, and I agree with the first, but these still seem to me like minor weaknesses in a strong article. I’m not hearing the alarm bells you seem to.

Re Tom C, I’m not an expert but to suggest that Dalits are “outside the caste system” seems pretty misleading, rather like suggesting that “excommunicated” is not a religious status in Christian churches

20

Tom C 06.26.12 at 6:11 am

I’m far from an expert, but that’s my educated impression. I see what you mean, though–if they’re cast out, that’s kind of a status. Anyway, I thought Europeans, etc. are in the same (non)-status, FWIW.

21

Gaddeswarup 06.26.12 at 6:26 am

I have seen articles with similar themes by John Harriss, for example
http://www.dfid.gov.uk/r4d/PDF/Outputs/FutureState/EPWJune07Harriss.pdf
which has a discussion of Brahmin and Christaian NGOs in Chennai. One of the organizers paraphrased their approach”the poor agitate, we operate”.

22

ajay 06.26.12 at 6:28 am

these still seem to me like minor weaknesses in a strong article.

See the very similar discussion about David Graeber’s unusual version of Apple’s history (“little democratic circles of 20 to 40 people with their laptops”). Up to the individual reader to ignore this or not, I suppose. But if Slee’s managed to get something like this wrong – and this is really straightforward, simple stuff, virtually common knowledge – how sure are we that he is correct in his analysis of the effects of land registry reform on excluded populations in Tamil Nadu? Especially since his footnotes make it very clear that he is relying on a single source.

23

Tom C 06.26.12 at 6:44 am

Yes, we have to be very careful about making assumptions in Tamil Nadu that Dalit = oppressed = correct. The ground reality is very different, and democracy has unleashed ugly forces (not that I’m justifying the earlier order). As a mere introduction to the complexity, see
http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?262030

24

Data Tutashkhia 06.26.12 at 8:15 am

Yeah, it seems pretty clear that technology and access to information are orthogonal to the degree of inequality. Can work either way, depending on how it’s used. Is this the point of the post?

25

reason 06.26.12 at 9:10 am

JQ
“and a broader section of the public, than it was before, and the answer in general is “Yes” “

Yep I get to communicate with John Quiggin and even Paul Krugman – and they may even sometimes answer me. Sometimes, I flatter myself I may even subtly influence discusions. My contact with the world of economics, which had been completely dormant for about 20 years has been rekindled (although I will say, we live in very interesting times). That is no small thing.

26

Peter T 06.26.12 at 9:20 am

JQ

and a broader section of the public, than it was before, and the answer in general is “Yes”

But to judge from voter turnout and party membership, the conversation does not seem to lead to actual action in the same way.

27

Scott Martens 06.26.12 at 10:02 am

This post makes me think that the Open Data Movement needs a complementary “Messy Data Movement”. I can’t help but contrast the problems of traditional title in Tamil Nadu with the way Canada and Australia handle aboriginal title issues: oral histories, legends, notebooks from early explorers and traders, legends, even outright myth can become admissible when it supports a traditional land claim. It’s not as if Canada and Australia are less digitized, less paper record driven states than India is.

My line of work is pretty closely associated with the problem of digitally manipulating diffuse knowledge, where the key question is not whether or not the information can be digitized, but the fact that digitization does not make it accessible, or, in James Scott’s more precise terminology, legible. Researching a long PhD by slowly sifting through paper volumes scanned in and stored at archive.org brings that home in a big way. Maybe we need more messy data – recordings of oral histories à la Studs Turkel, vast compendia of artless cell phone pictures with time and GPS stamps, plain text recipes and emos putting bad poems on their blogs. If being open and being data makes it count, then why not make it all open data? It’s easier for me to imagine the disempowered sifting through digital archives like Indian waste pickers, and finding some real gems, then to imagine them making sophisticated use of highly structured data sets and running R scripts on them.

Second, it seems to me the discussion of open data as a means of empowering people takes as its basis a rather Marxist conception of alienation. That’s not a criticism – Marx’s notions of alienation have been pretty productive. Government is big and distant. Your life is dependent on giant corporation that employ you, handle your money, distribute essential goods and services. You have no power over them, no handle on them, and yet they can destroy your life.

Consider Sesame Street, which was designed to provide a leg up for inner city children before they start school, but ultimately gave the already privileged children an even bigger leg up. The claim that open data empowers the already empowered more than the disempowered is all too credible.

28

Andrew Fisher 06.26.12 at 10:55 am

I’m not really a geek, but there are some geeks that report to me. I also have responsibility for a database full of students’ personal information. Footnote 18 is therefore the one that speaks most to me.

The way that these things work in the UK, I have limited control over the protection I can give our students’ personal data. The Information Commissioner determines what counts as personal data and what doesn’t count. If I view the Commissioner’s decisions as showing hopeless naivety about re-identification, or striking the wrong balance between potential harm and potential benefit (and sometimes I do), there is in practice very little I can do except comply with the precedents set. I can’t even stop collecting the data, because another arm of the state (HEFCE) requires me to report on all manner of my students’ personal data.

So the option of careful, tailored anonymisation strategies as set out by Cavoukian and El Emam seem totally inapplicable in my context.

If the state determines what data are collected and how they are held, and then sets out and enforces the legal framework within which data are made available then we should expect the outcome to reflect the state’s objectives.

29

sanbikinoraion 06.26.12 at 12:00 pm

ajay — you might more charitably read Slee’s post as saying “the digitization of sales of…” or “the digitization of catalogues of…” both for books and videos, since Netflix also largely subsists on physical media, still, AFAIK. FWIW, though, I believe Amazon now ship more volume of ebooks than real books — this is unsurprising considering how cheap a lot of ebooks are in comparison to physical ones, particularly when Amazon has 99p sales and/or freebie giveaways. Anecdatally, my partner got a Kindle about 18 months ago and already has 600 books on it.

30

Tom T. 06.26.12 at 12:17 pm

I agree with #1 that the issue in the Dalit example is not the digitization or the transparency of the data. The digitized records didn’t just appear, fully formed. Rather, someone created them, and in the process of doing so, made decisions as to whose claims, older records, local histories, etc. were going to be embodied in those digitized records, and which. The real question is how those decisions were made.

I have no way of knowing whether the Dalit claim has any validity. For all I know, the Dalits came to the area two generations ago and displaced the Mudaliars by some improper means. Or perhaps the Dalit community is an oligarchy run by a few comparatively wealthy families that ill-serves the needs of vulnerable individuals within it. Maybe the “smaller firms” previously integral to development were simply taking bribes for local Big Men whenever someone wanted to add on a room to their house. Rather than all of us hearing and trying to evaluate the validity of these claims and the social worth of preserving them, it seems more appropriate to ask whether the digitization process and the local government’s recognition of it did so.

And if not, if the government arbitrarily or corruptly overrode valid claims, that doesn’t seem to bode well for its ability to police the “free-market doppelganger.”

31

Alex 06.26.12 at 12:41 pm

Two things: I think you’re close to an assumption that it is ipso facto wrong to make a business that uses any public resources. (Perhaps you think that profit, as such, ought to disappear as a social institution – well, praps, but that’s a really big thing to leave as an unstated assumption.)

I think this is important, because the implicit corollary is something along the line of “well, if you’re making money from it you should pay for it”, and then you’re off down the track of user-charging public services generally.

Secondly, I think it’s high time someone stood up for seeing like the state. We’ve had a thirty year experiment in being all clever-clever about Experts with their Big Plans, hyuck hyuck, and instead Leaving It To The Market and Giving The People What They Want, A Bit of Garden and Off Street Parking.

And y’know….results have not been satisfactory.

32

Alex 06.26.12 at 12:44 pm

Further, what is the opposite of open data? What do you think should be stuffed in Douglas Adams’ cupboard down the corridor in the disused lavatory with the “Beware of the Leopard” sign? (because the beginning of Hitchhiker’s Guide is a story about open planning information, after all…)

33

Alex 06.26.12 at 12:44 pm

I wonder which bit of my Douglas Adams quote got me moderated. “Corridor”? “Lavatory”? “Leopard”?

34

Jerry Vinokurov 06.26.12 at 3:45 pm

Interesting post. There’s a lot of stuff in here that I would like to respond to, but for now, I want to single out one paragraph that struck me as sort of weird:

Unfortunately the Open Data Movement demands that data be provided without borders and in a uniform way: machine processable, available to anyone, and license-free. It mandates non-discriminatory licensing, focuses on standards-based formats, and generally insists that data be accessible to rich and poor alike, like justice and the Ritz. It insists that any measures governments would like to take to favour—-for example—-non-commercial users or local users, be taken off the table. It strikes me as bizarre that this logic has gained such a significant hold among left-leaning digital enthusiasts that it has become orthodoxy.

I have a hard time understanding what the alternative is supposed to be. Should data not be machine-processable, available to anyone, and license-free? Especially that first part; should it be handwritten notes on cocktail napkins instead? Obviously that’s kind of a rhetorical excess on my part, but I am genuinely confused as to what the opposite of “machine-processable” is supposed to be, or why we should want it.

The “preference for non-commercial users or local users” is dubious too. If the city of Pittsburgh, where I live, makes its bus schedule available online and then Google mines that schedule to integrate with Maps, so that I can now punch my start and end points into Maps and get bus directions, what exactly is the problem? That doesn’t mean that any commercial use of open data is an unalloyed good, but neither does it mean that it’s uniformly bad. It’s kind of a case-by-case thing. If I don’t live in Pittsburgh but want to move there and buy a house, why shouldn’t I have access to data that gives me a better understanding of where I might want to live?

In general, it strikes me that one could make these kinds of local vs. global arguments for a lot of things. Before the information becomes publicly available, it’s guarded by select gatekeepers and heavily leveraged by insiders; once everyone can use it, the information goes global and can be leveraged by anyone who knows how to extract something useful from it. That’s not just true of government data but almost any data whatsoever (e.g. newspaper reporting, science data, and my favorite example, sports analytics). Of course, open data isn’t an axiomatic good, and there can certainly be drawbacks to it, as the OP highlights, which should be combatted. But pace Paul Duguid at #2, I don’t believe the way to fight the adverse effects is to close down data sources or make them less available.

35

sanbikinoraion 06.26.12 at 4:03 pm

Jerry,

I can see a role for a creative-commons set of licenses for use of open data. If google want to integrate the open bus times into a commercial product designed to sell advertising eyeballs, then yes, they could have to pay a license fee to access the data for commercial purposes. If Joe Bloggs wants to host a free website doing the same thing for no pay, fine, he can get access for nothing. What’s wrong with that model?

36

Alex 06.26.12 at 4:09 pm

generally insists that data be accessible to rich and poor alike, like justice and the Ritz

File under “good point if it was actually true”? The Ritz, and indeed justice, comes with an impressive price tag, which is the point of the aphorism. FixMyStreet is free, as in beer and as in speech.

37

piglet 06.26.12 at 4:55 pm

Since it was mentioned controversially, here’s an excellent recent article about Amazon and e-books: http://www.thenation.com/article/168125/amazon-effect

38

piglet 06.26.12 at 5:02 pm

“As part of the program, the Tamil Nadu government declared that the digitized records would be the only evidence admissable in court for land claims, so the older records and less precise data that formed the basis of the Dalit claims lost any legal footing they had, and their claim was sunk.”

It seems that this exclusivity, rather than digitization as such, is what leads to corruption.

39

Brendan 06.26.12 at 5:19 pm

The Ritz, and indeed justice, comes with an impressive price tag, which is the point of the aphorism. FixMyStreet is free, as in beer and as in speech.

Seems to me that you’re confusing the data with applications of the data.

Applications may be free (as in beer, as in speech, and as in not-requiring-a-computer-science-degree-to-use), but the data itself is not much good without specific skills. I think the point is that this has a big influence on how the data is used, and what applications will be available.

40

David Turner 06.26.12 at 5:38 pm

sanbikinoraion,

In practice, Google is not going to pay for transit data. Google’s transit team is tiny, and they simply do not have the resources to negotiate individually with each of the literally hundreds of transit agencies out there. I suppose you could have some transit equivalent of ASCAP/BMI, but that hasn’t really worked out all that well for performing artists, so I don’t see why it would work well for the transit agencies. And, of course, Google (in collaboration with a few transit agencies) defined the format that is most commonly used for transit data. Should agencies pay Google in order to publish in that format? Well, everyone knows that transit agencies have no money — instead, they would publish in a welter of incompatible formats (I have reverse engineered one of these incompatible formats. It was not fun.) Anyway, one of the nice things about having a single format (even one defined by a competitor) is that I can focus my efforts as a software developer on more useful things than data formats. Among the things that standardization has given me time to work on are good bicycling routes and good routes for people with disabilities.

41

Patrick 06.26.12 at 5:51 pm

@C.P. Norris,
They’re poor relative to the United States, but they’re richer than all the people around them that aren’t collecting rents, and there is no guarantee that they’re particularly benevolent.

@Paul Duguid,
My comment may have the aesthetic of an NRA comment but it is substantively different. Guns are technology designed to kill people. Open Data is not a technology that is designed to put people out of jobs. In one case, the problem with the technology is the aim of the technology in the other case the problem with the technology is a side effect of the technology.

If someone designed a technology whose sole purpose was to cause unemployment, I would blame the technology and the designers, not just the people who used it.

42

Jerry Vinokurov 06.26.12 at 6:29 pm

sanbikinoraion,

I think this is an interesting idea but, at least as I understand American copyright law (which is not very much! and I could be very wrong!) it’s pretty much a non-starter (in the States). Simple compilation of publicly available data (like bus schedules) is not protectable by copyright, as per the Feist v. Rural ruling.

Differential impact of any technology across classes is certainly a serious concern, but I don’t think it’s unique to open data. Pretty much any advance you can think of is almost certain to provide differentially more benefit to those who are better off; that doesn’t mean that the advance shouldn’t exist or that it doesn’t also make life better for those at the bottom.

43

Megapissed 06.26.12 at 6:30 pm

Um, so you don’t like open data, huh? At the very best, your analysis is radically incomplete for it doesn’t include any of the costs imposed by closed data. Anyone who has had to interact with the land record bureaucracy in places like India will tell you about the costs in time, bribes, lost work hours it takes to navigate a closed data environment. Also, there are plenty of stories in the Indian media of how farmers won disputes with authorities using GIS data and exposed land-grabs (because the data is open).

44

John Quiggin 06.26.12 at 9:09 pm

The relevant Creative Commons license clause is most probably share-alike. That is, rather than restricting commercial enterprises from gaining open access to data, we should require them to grant open access to the results of whatever they produce using that data. That would still leave room for advertising-supported models like that of Google, but that seems a relatively minor problem to me.

It may be that imposing a share-alike rule on uses of publicly available data is inconsistent with copyright law as it stands, but I (and I assume most others here) hold no brief for copyright law as it stands.

45

David Turner 06.26.12 at 9:23 pm

John Quiggen, I am not sure what you would want a hypothetical sharealike license to mean for transit data in this context. To be clear: I understand both the technology and the legal issues — but I don’t understand what “open access” would mean in this case. Imagine that Google takes some city’s transit data and does a week of precomputation on it, combining it with a proprietary data set (a street network, say). Imagine further that the result of this precomputation is useful only to those who have Google’s internal software (or who are prepared to do serious reverse engineering). As it happens, the linked paper makes that reverse engineering task possible, but Google clearly had the option to not publish it.

What is Google supposed to release here?

46

Matt K 06.26.12 at 11:31 pm

I had a really hard time following this. To quibble with the motivating example, how is the issue with the Dalits and Mudaliars related to the openness of the data? If the data were not publicly accessible, but instead required a trip to city hall, wouldn’t the outcome have been the same? Switching from paper records to a GIS system allegedly allowed the Mudaliars to tamper with the records, but that’s merely incidental; how are paper records or an oral tradition would be any harder to suborn?

In a similar vein, it’s a little strange to mourn the loss of the “traditional” firms whose major competitive advantage being in the right place at the right time, connected with the right people. Isn’t that sorta antithetical to the whole idea of having a level playing field?

My impression has been that most Open Data advocates want the government to provide information that it already has in a publicly accessible, reasonably accessible way. For example, the transit authorities obviously must already have bus schedules, if only for their own internal use. There’s no compelling reason to keep it a secret, the cost to making it accessible isn’t very high, and people are interested in it. I gather, though I haven’t followed it very closely, that the UK weather situation is similar.It would certainly help businesses, but so does better police protection (less theft! easier to recruit staff!) and mass transit (no need to build a parking lot!)

There are certainly ways this could go off the rails. For example, insurance companies could lobby the government to collect new and expensive data which is only useful for insurance purposes. This would be a subsidy to LLoylds in a way that sticking data which the Met already has on a webpage is not. Privacy is also a potential issue, particularly for things which are nominally public, but are presently a hassle to find out. I doubt most people would spend hours skulking around in the Vital Statistics Office to find out much a neighbor makes, but I can imagine that some people might look it up online if it could be done at 2am in one’s underwear.

That said, I think that easy, public access to data collected on the public dime ought to at least be a reasonable default.

47

tomslee 06.27.12 at 1:16 am

Thanks for all these comments. I’ll pick up on just a few of the threads.

david #15 puts his finger on a problem when he asks “isn’t it almost always the case that the very poor will have a comparative advantage in things which are antithetical to development?” and John Quiggin #11 as well as Jerry Vinokurov #42 are on the same tack. Am I just arguing in favour of blacksmiths and handloom weavers?

Now I’m with JW Mason #6 in thinking that small operations are often “the base… of many social ecosystems” and we need to pay attention to them, but if you’re in favour of giving them up for the consumer efficiencies of transit data on Google Maps (Jerry #34) then I can see your point. But what matters most to me here, is that we should be clear that it’s consumer efficiencies that we are getting and not civic improvements. We are probably getting those consumer efficiencies at the cost of local jobs and local social ecosystems. But right now some Open Data advocates argue that Open Data is a means of promoting significant civic involvement and of empowering the little guy (sic). When it comes to operational data, that’s not going to pan out and saying “but we get bus times on Google Maps” is a bait and switch argument.

The balance of benefits and harms that come with sharing government data depends on the type of data and the terms its shared under, and making Generic Good Thing or Generic Bad Thing statements doesn’t help much. Judging by the back and forth here, I’ve slipped into making some Generic Bad Thing statements, and my only excuse is that I’m trying to address some Generic Good Thing statements that are floating around.

Jerry Vinokurov #34 picks me up on it, and asks “if not open, then what?” and I’d say “It depends”. I do think we can do something between open and closed, like the creative commons suggestions (sanbikinoraion #35) and that it will be useful in many cases. The cultural industries analogy goes quite a long way for me. Selective licensing makes sense for some data (I’d be happy if property tax records were made available to local developers free, and at a cost to out-of-towners). I’m sure there are difficulties, as David Turner points out in #40 and #45, but I think they can be solved. And if Google is not going to pay or negotiate with all those transit agencies (#40) then that’s fine by me: perhaps that will let some of those apps being developed by hobbyists at hackathons gain some usage within their own transit area.

On the details of the Tamil Nadu case, I have no first hand knowledge. The reference I link to (written by a researcher from the area) refers to “citizens from the Dalit caste”.

Finally, @ajay: I might have missed the entire pre-2008 existence of Amazon, and missed the fact that Netflix shipped DVDs or, as sanbikinoraion #29 says, it could be a slightly loose wording. But if you’re going to read so closely you should have noticed I referred to Amazon as a “bookseller/publisher”, which is a more recent development, and that the other sloppy thinking you refer to is not mine, but is a quotation. As for “relying on a single source” I really thought that on this post I might not get hit for lack of references. Nevertheless, I cannot get too angry at a Molesworth fan.

48

tomslee 06.27.12 at 3:38 am

Several people have said, about the Tamil Nadu example, that “open data” is not the problem. Data, like other aspects of technology, is always used in combination with human rules and practices, so it’s never just the data that’s the problem. The techno-optimist credits technology with good outcomes and blames human rules and practices for bad outcomes, and I think that’s at play here.

49

David Turner 06.27.12 at 3:49 am

I have been in the openness business for a long time. And I will tell you that there are intractable issues with “sharealike” proposals for data which is merely queried or presented rather than redistributed . The ones I pointed out are just the tip of the iceberg.

And speaking as one of those local app developers, I would rather have the competition. First, I think Google Maps is a civic improvement, in sense that it lets me get around nearly any city better — for instance, it will give me transit directions in Tokyo in English, something that a locally developed app would be unlikely to do. Second, Google provides both pressure for standardization, and resources to help that standardization happen. Unlike nearly every other company, Google does not believe that business is a zero-sum game. They’re perfectly happy to do things that create positive externalities (that is, do them themselves, rather than merely encourage governments to do them) so long as they make some money doing it. They’re far from perfect, but in this case, it’s simply a mistake to see them as a negative force.

Standardization lets hackathons focus on what to do with the data, rather than how to parse it (that is, it leaves only the fun part, which is what volunteer developers want to focus on). And it lets people who are less technically savvy do interesting things with the data. Here’s one local example: NYPD released data on traffic accidents in a non-standard, hard-to-parse format (deliberately? You decide). Local community activists wanted to use this data to learn which intersections were dangerous. But they couldn’t, until I (and some other folks) parsed that data into a reasonable format. Sure, as a local developer, that might have given me some business. But (a) couldn’t someone in India have done it for less? How does that help locals? and (b) Even if India were impossible, we’re talking about community activists; they can’t afford me even though I’m happy to work for a more-or-less entry-level salary so long as it’s for a good cause. I guess if the data were on paper, that would eliminate the competition from India — but it would also probably eliminate the possibility of it being used altogether.

If you’re worried about the effect of information technology on small bookshops, that might be reasonable (even if it has little to do with open data). But don’t feel sad for the local developers: we’re doing just fine.

50

Watson Ladd 06.27.12 at 4:02 am

I recently moved across the country for the summer. This was only possible because of the existence of websites that serve the entire country to find housing, maps that cover every inch of the US, and the fact that the laws of the United States are substantially similar across states.

I can use the same tools to navigate the public transit system as back home, and even, through knowledge of the area acquired by others which I have payed for, know what to do in the evenings. This is not possible in a world of localized, small, knowledgeholders each with their own fiefdoms.

The centralization of deeds is a wonderful thing: no longer can anyone show up and claim that they own your house, based on a sketchy bunch of records of long-rotted trees, broken fences, etc. The question of who owns what is orthogonal to how we will record it: the Torrens system ended a generation of anarchy in titles on the Australian frontier.

51

Martin Bento 06.27.12 at 6:30 am

A couple of people have posted links to articles about Amazon, ebooks, and monopoly. This is peripherally related to this thread, because the OP seemed to imply that Amazon’s and Apple’s monopolies are straightforward consequences of digitalization, and it is more complicated than that. The position Apple is taking with ebooks in opposition to Amazon is that the publisher, rather than retailer, has the right to set the price. Otherwise, the biggest publisher will get a monopoly. Apple should know; that’s how they got the downloadable music monopoly. However, all this is tangential here. Maybe we should have a thread on it?

52

Doug M. 06.27.12 at 7:18 am

Tom, and everyone else — I’m a little surprised that nobody has cited the work of Hernando de Soto. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, de Soto wrote a couple of books — “The Other Path” and “The Mystery of Capital” — on misregulation generally and land titling in particular. To greatly oversimplify, he claimed that poor people around the world, when trying to deal with a capitalist system, were systematically disadvantaged by lack of clear title to their land.

If you work in the development field (which I do), then De Soto is sort of a… I don’t know, maybe a Chomsky-like figure? In the sense that, agree or disagree, it’s very hard to avoid him. He’s gone through a couple of iterations of refining his arguments, and he’s drawn on a fair amount of actual evidence, so he can’t easily be dismissed. On the other hand, he has some very tenacious and competent critics who have IMO scored some pretty solid hits. If you don’t feel like reading two plumpish books, brief googling will turn up any number of sites that discuss his work.

There have also been a number of critiques of land titling systems. IMS Mike Davis’ 2006 book “Planet of Slums” devotes a chapter to this (and is an interesting read in its own right).

Doug M.

53

Doug M. 06.27.12 at 7:33 am

More generally, this is an example of a phenomenon that’s fairly familiar to development professionals: someone raises a development-related issue, then proceeds to discuss it without any reference to the extant development literature or the experience of development professionals.

This is not a complaint… well, okay, it is a complaint. It’s not a complaint in /this/ case, because the post is interesting in its own right, and brings a fresh and novel perspective. I’m a career development person, and I’m familiar with the dangers of imposing top-down wide-field Modernist solutions in a developing country context. But I hadn’t thought of comparing land titling to Netflix. Not being sarcastic; that’s actually a really interesting analogy. This isn’t a “Million T-Shirts For Africa” kind of thing. (Google it if you’re interested. It’s an example of the sort of thing that makes development professionals reach for the jug of palm wine.)

That said… the issue of centralized data systems in developing countries, and how they differentially empower and disempower different groups, is a known problem in the field. There’s literature on it, there are forums where people have burned lots of electrons discussing it, and there are professionals who have devoted large chunks of their lives to addressing it.

Doug M.

54

Doug M. 06.27.12 at 8:08 am

“it’s consumer efficiencies that we are getting and not civic improvements.”

I see the strength of what you’re saying, but can the two really be separated? Here’s an example: one of my favorite bookshops is the great Montague Bookstore, which took over an abandoned mill in the small town of Montague, MA. Their motto is “Books You Don’t Need, In A Place You Can’t Find.” And there’s a fair amount of truth to this — Montague is an obscure small New England township that’s all winding roads, blind corners, and taciturn locals. If an app makes it easier for me to find the place, is that not a civic improvement as well?

Here’s an intermediate case: I’ve lived and worked in places without street names or street signs. You can go on all day about local knowledge and nous and traditional networks of information, but the plain fact is that a village with named, signed streets is a lot easier for outsiders to navigate than a village without. I’m perfectly happy to stop the car and chat with a local for a few minutes, but sometimes you just need to get where you’re going. Even small villages are pretty connected to the world these days, so there’s a steady flow of outsiders who need to know where they’re going. Street signage is of course a big part of “seeing like a state” — it means you now have a street address at which the state can find you, for starters — but its benefits are pretty pervasive. Are they purely consumer benefits, or do they include some increment of empowerment?

Doug M.

55

Alex 06.27.12 at 8:11 am

Now I’m with JW Mason #6 in thinking that small operations are often “the base… of many social ecosystems” and we need to pay attention to them, but if you’re in favour of giving them up for the consumer efficiencies of transit data on Google Maps (Jerry #34) then I can see your point. But what matters most to me here, is that we should be clear that it’s consumer efficiencies that we are getting and not civic improvements. We are probably getting those consumer efficiencies at the cost of local jobs and local social ecosystems.

What local jobs, in particular? What local social ecosystems? I’m really struggling to see what the local social ecosystem (or job) that might have been lost here was.

56

Alex 06.27.12 at 8:23 am

Also, on the original point, I’m very suspicious of the idea that either a) land titles that are a bit loose and iffy are a good thing* or b) the poor are necessarily better protected by this.

I can imagine just as strong an argument that sort-of-iffy title is easier to encroach on, enclose, expropriate, and generally abuse, and further that the powerful are the ones who benefit because they are powerful and can take advantage of this. “The meek may inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights” as John Paul Getty said, and he ought to know.

On one hand you have the Scott argument, on the other the De Soto one. I suspect the decision between them is about the most Scott-ean possible, as it’s going to be inevitably driven by local context (rather like the people in the OP who are both Dalits and also landowners – good luck deriving any general principle to deal with that case!).

There is a related argument that informal, personal, nuanced, whatever systems are the most ferociously exclusionary towards anyone who isn’t considered the Right Kind of Person, and where they are important, they tend to mean that the formal system is really awful when you have to use it. But that’s another argument.

57

Alex 06.27.12 at 8:24 am

Ah, my asterisk. I was going to asterisk the fact that the United States has a kind of funny, loosey-goosey, decentralised system of land title and this Does Not Appear To Have Developed To Our Advantage in the recent predicament.

58

Peter T 06.27.12 at 10:30 am

Alex

Well, maybe in a different context you can think of Walmart vs local stores, or small farmers with a diversity of crops against large-scale export agriculture. I kind of miss the local book-stores, that had staff interested in books, and often odd books, even though Amazon is cheaper.

General point is that actual ecosystems get richer when they slow down the energy moving through them, as this leads to more capture, more niches and a denser web of interdependencies. I don’t know how far this translates into human social systems, but I think it does partially. In which case, preserving inefficiencies has benefits.

59

Alex 06.27.12 at 10:53 am

Well, maybe in a different context you can think of Walmart vs local stores, or small farmers with a diversity of crops against large-scale export agriculture. I kind of miss the local book-stores, that had staff interested in books, and often odd books, even though Amazon is cheaper.

But then, this has bugger all to do with open data. Amazon wasn’t, in fact, built on some sort of release of hitherto unavailable public information.

60

Alex 06.27.12 at 10:54 am

I don’t think anyone wants multiple, nuanced, interdependent bus timetables. It sounds like a great way to encourage people to drive.

61

sanbikinoraion 06.27.12 at 12:32 pm

Alex,

I’d say the success of Amazon, at least partially, was built on such information: the list of all books available to buy right now, with their descriptions, metadata and what other people thought of them. All publicly accessible, just not corralled in one place.

62

Matt 06.27.12 at 1:06 pm

Well, maybe in a different context you can think of Walmart vs local stores, or small farmers with a diversity of crops against large-scale export agriculture.

Things like google, though, make it vastly easier to find the interesting local store, or the farmer’s market, or the small producer. Even in my own town I use it all the time to remember when when and where various farmer’s markets are taking place, or exactly where that obscure book store I like is located. I’ll soon be moving across the country, and the fact that I can use google and some other sites to know what stores and shops (as well as public transport) are located in the areas I’m looking is a _huge_ plus. Now, when I drive somewhere, I can plan to stay at small Bed and breakfasts and eat a good local restaurants if I want. 10, or even 5, years ago, it would be all chain hotels and Denny’s.

Also, any bookstore that wants to can sell its books on Amazon, too. It doesn’t just help “big guys”.

63

Benjamin de la Pena 06.27.12 at 2:28 pm

Two things:

Bhoomi and its clone in Tamil Nadu, is a top-down, open data project. It was mandated by Katarnaka state, on the support of the WB and ADB. It was designed to solve a problem framed by the state.

Map Kibera is bottom-up. The players were the urban poor of Kibera and the other slums of Nairobi. It was designed to solve a problem frame by the communities.

64

SamChevre 06.27.12 at 3:26 pm

I don’t think anyone wants multiple, nuanced, interdependent bus timetables.

I do; being able to figure out how to take a city bus to the Greyhound station, and which bus I need to catch at which stop, and having a street view of the stop where I need to change busses, makes getting around an unfamiliar town much easier.

I suppsoe, given the bus is running anyway, that this is a consumer improvement and not a civic good–but it sure feels like a civic good.

65

Jerry Vinokurov 06.27.12 at 5:14 pm

So, back in April of this year, I attended an event just outside of DC called Transparency Camp. Maybe some of you may have heard of it; I came because a friend of mine (Kathryn Peters, co-founder of TurboVote, in case you’re looking for women to talk to about open data), told me that I might be interested in this from a tech perspective. You can take a look at the various sessions that were run during this two-day event here. I would say there were probably between 400 and 500 people in attendance (somewhat fewer on the second day) and all the sessions were organized by the participants themselves (so there was no central agenda).

That should give you an idea of how “big” open data is. It’s not a perfect metric, but it’s probably as good as any. When I first showed up, I expected it to be very techno-utopian, with lots of people talking about how technology will save us all, yada yada yada. That really turned out not to be the case, and I think you can get a feeling for that by looking at the session topics. There were definitely some purely technical sessions, but there were also a lot of sessions that focused on how to leverage that data to do something useful, generate community involvement, and so on. Although the page doesn’t seem to list it (or possibly I was too lazy to find it), one of the keynote speakers was Juan-Pablo Velez, who works on of Open City, which should give you some idea about what kinds of things we’re talking about here, concretely.

I’m bringing this up because I think this paints a more balanced picture of what open data advocates are doing. Yes, there’s almost certainly going to be potential for this data to be mined by profit-seeking entities, but there are also lots of people out there doing really good work. Work that really is intended to increase civic participation and bring more, and more useful information to people. It’s hard going and the efforts are mostly still in their nascent stages but (at the risk of sounding a little techno-utopian myself) I think there’s a lot of useful potential in this work. Also, while I chose the Google Maps/bus schedule example because it was the first thing that occurred to me (and the discussion had to do with consumer efficiencies) it should be clear that there are a lot of different projects out there that have nothing to do with that.

66

JW Mason 06.27.12 at 6:14 pm

There’s a very interesting argument made by Ashwin over at Macroresilience that is possibly related to Slee’s here. In this great post People Make Poor Monitors for Computers he points out that automation of complex systems can lead to more catastrophic failures because it is only through handling of routine problems, the ones that can be automated, that human operators gain the skills and habits (and sustain the attention) they need to deal with the exceptional problems for which automatic solutions are not possible. His example is aircraft pilots; one might be able to say something similar about the value of the work people have to do to maintain and navigate dispersed, idiosyncratic forms of knowledge.

Or maybe these concerns are just misplaced.

67

Substance McGravitas 06.27.12 at 6:35 pm

An airplane and an economy can both crash pretty good with or without computers.

68

JW Mason 06.27.12 at 8:37 pm

S. McG.,

Yes, I’ve argued with Ashwin a bit on how well this works as a metaphor for macroeconomic management. And maybe it’s not even a good argument for airplanes. I find it intriguing, tho — and if nothing else I think it’s a good expression of the worldview or sensibility that makes people like Slee (and me) uncomfortable with too much legibility/systemization. Maybe call it left-Hayekianism, with James Scott as its patron saint?

Re bus schedules, back before there was Google Maps the Chicago transit system (and probably others; I was living in Chicago then) had a phone line you could call to get transit directions anywhere in the city. I had the idea that it would be great to make answering that line a kind of apprenticeship requirement, or maybe even an ongoing responsibility, of anyone in a management role at the CTA. Would give them an intimate knowledge of the system — useful for all kinds of things – as well as constant first-hand feedback on the types of trips people were making and problems they were having. Of course I don’t claim depriving me of this pleasant fantasy is at all a cost; I bring it up just to suggest that it is possible in principle to imagine ways in which nonstandardized bus schedule data could contribute to local institutions in a positive way.

Someone upthread mentioned Hernando e Soto. IIRC, his big thing was that giving squatters title to the and they occupied would allow them to use it as collateral, opening up all kinds of entrepreneurial opportunities. What always puzzled me about this — besides a general skepticism toward the wonders of microcredit — is, if land titles were secure, how would anyone end ups squatting in the first place? What happens to the next generation of landless?

69

Peter Erwin 06.27.12 at 8:42 pm

Sam Chevre @ 63:

I don’t think anyone wants multiple, nuanced, interdependent bus timetables.

I do; being able to figure out how to take a city bus to the Greyhound station, and which bus I need to catch at which stop, and having a street view of the stop where I need to change busses, makes getting around an unfamiliar town much easier.

Actually, you want the same thing as Alex.

What Alex was referring to was the idea of bus schedules being local, closed forms of knowledge, available to certain local groups but not to outsiders (and not necessarily to other local groups). So in order to “figure out how to take a city bus to the Greyhound station,” you’d have to know the right local people who had that knowledge, and possibly belong to the right social circles — perhaps more than one, since not all bus knowledge would be known to all groups, even if they were local. And the schedules and maps would make coded references to things (landmarks, traffic flows, other sorts of schedules) that only a local could be expected to recognize.

The idea of being able to gather together information and make it available in an easily comprehensible form to outsiders — or to locals who don’t have the right connections — is part of what’s at issue.

70

Matt 06.27.12 at 9:18 pm

I think it’s a good expression of the worldview or sensibility that makes people like Slee (and me) uncomfortable with too much legibility/systemization. Maybe call it left-Hayekianism, with James Scott as its patron saint?

Careful, JW- you’re getting very close several times in this post to longing for those Arcadian, prelapsarian days gone by.

71

Substance McGravitas 06.27.12 at 9:19 pm

I find it intriguing, tho—and if nothing else I think it’s a good expression of the worldview or sensibility that makes people like Slee (and me) uncomfortable with too much legibility/systemization. Maybe call it left-Hayekianism, with James Scott as its patron saint?

I know the feeling. Obviously Google’s good enough at crunching numbers that people use it as a default: I do not want my portal to my government to be Google, nor do I want it to be the default of my fellow citizens. I don’t trust a business to look after my interests and I don’t trust a business in a foreign country to look after my interests. At the same time, as noted by Tom Slee in the posts that kicked off this thing, my Tory government is dedicated to killing off information that guides policy, and I’m gonna be mining Google – who suck! – for versions of it anyway. Which is a mutation of Jerry’s question: the information won’t be unavailable, versions of it will be available through private actors anyway.

72

ajay 06.27.12 at 9:33 pm

“if land titles were secure, how would anyone end ups squatting in the first place?”

Unclear land titles aren’t necessary for squatting. Urban squats don’t happen because no one knows who owns the building; they happen because no one is using the building.

“I’d say the success of Amazon, at least partially, was built on such information: the list of all books available to buy right now, with their descriptions, metadata and what other people thought of them. All publicly accessible, just not corralled in one place.”

I don’t think that’s true either – the information, even including reviews, was corralled in one place before Amazon ever came along and that place was called “a bookshop”. You could go to a decent bookshop and order any book you wanted and they’d get it for you, if it was in print. The only information that they couldn’t get for you is “what other people thought of them” – and that information was not publicly accessible.

Amazon didn’t become huge by publishing e-books and it didn’t become huge because it was the only place you could go to order any book you wanted that was in print; it predates the former, and the latter predates it.

I would say that I think people are being a bit uncharitable to Slee on the land registry point: I don’t think he really believes that people would be happier without clear provable title to the land they own. That would be nuts (and as Doug mentioned, contrary to a lot of existing development literature).

73

Substance McGravitas 06.27.12 at 9:57 pm

versions of it will be available through private actors anyway

Here’s a news feed from Facebook’s number-crunchers.

http://www.facebook.com/feeds/page.php?format=atom10&id=8394258414

74

Martin Bento 06.27.12 at 11:01 pm

Happened to glance at what I wrote in 51

“Otherwise, the biggest publisher will get a monopoly. “

should be:

“Otherwise, the biggest retailer will get a monopoly. “

75

tomslee 06.28.12 at 2:09 am

David Turner: your first link at #49 is missing. Any chance of posting it?

Standardization is a bit of a mixed bag. Lack of standards can make life difficult but premature standardization can inhibit innovation. For example, and to take a risk talking about a topic I don’t know much about, GTFS doesn’t include much information about fares, despite some efforts, because the variants are too complex (see discussion here). There’s nothing about child fares, senior fares or other variants. As a result, few authorities publish fare information in a digestible manner and calculating fares is tough. If the authorities were not so tied up with a standard they might venture to publish more fare data.

Alex: on your “what local jobs? what local social ecosystems?” examples that come to mind are estate agents (expertise based on local knowledge), direct contact with city officials being replaced by SeeClickFix messages. Is a ticketing app an improvement over buying bus tickets and getting timetables at a corner store/newsagent? And yes, I do feel uncomfortable taking a stand for estate agents.

76

rici 06.28.12 at 2:31 am

tomslee: Is a ticketing app an improvement over buying bus tickets and getting timetables at a corner store/newsagent?

Without a shadow of a doubt, yes.

Having spent a few years in Switzerland and having seen how public transit can actually work, I can assure you that being able to take a glance at the bus/train/boat schedule on your phone (using an app made freely available by the transit system itself) is not just better, it is changes your relationship to the transit system. In particular, it makes it possible to use public transit for improvised travel, a luxury only available to car-owners in other places I’ve lived. It’s even better, because you don’t need to return to your privately-owned vehicle; many times, we set out on random hikes in places we hadn’t explored before and then decided to take the next convenient train/bus back home: it’s amazing to be able to just look at an Android map application which shows you where you are, where the bus and train stops are, and when they will come (and where they will go). Honest, you should try it.

Now we’re back in Peru, and one of the biggest challenges I face on an ongoing basis is trying to figure out bus routes. It’s fine when you take the same route every day, since eventually you learn all the details and you can get help from other people waiting for buses who have already worked out part of the system, but trying to plot out a trip to a distant destination requiring several changes is truly challenging. Again, people will help — but they don’t necessarily know the right answer either, and sometimes you can get really bad advice.

77

John Quiggin 06.28.12 at 3:25 am

I’m with rici on this. Living in DC last year, I could check the (actual, not scheduled) time of the next bus or metro before leaving my apartment. I never felt the lack of a car. Brisbane not quite so good (either in terms of info or actual service), but being able to plan a trip online makes a huge difference.

78

Bruce Wilder 06.28.12 at 3:41 am

I’m only an occasional user of the bus in Los Angeles, but having an app for that, so to speak, has been wonderful. Being able to “see” in real time (love that phrase — “real time”) where the next bus is, and get an estimate of how long it will be, before it arrives, can free up 10 minutes to walk into a shop and get refreshment or complete another errand.

Plus, L.A. has many express buses, but whether to take the local, which has arrived or wait for an express that might not come, used to be a torturous dilemma. Being able to take an express speeds things up, of course, and when I am really clever, I can figure out when to switch from express to local, or vice versa, as well as an anticipated arrival time, with great precision.

Also, one of the disturbing things about buses is that they are frequently diverted from their regular routes, and the app has helped me figured that out, on at least one critical occasion. From the app, I knew the bus had come and gone, and I should stop waiting at that stop, despite no signs and many others waiting with me.

79

rici 06.28.12 at 4:19 am

With respect to land titles, the questions are really pretty complex. Ceteris paribus (a hint that what follows is a lie) people would prefer to have a clear title to their land. But in the real world, as the example of the Dalits in Tamil Nadu shows, the choices for poor people may not include “clear title”. In that case, they may prefer to have a murky title, or in any event to not lose their land to someone else who has been given a clear title. In particular, in parts of the world where bribery is an integral part of the registration process — as it apparently is in Tamil Nadu — it is very easy for the poor to get outbid.

Hernando de Soto is not, IMHO, even vaguely comparable with Chomsky, but I guess I’m probably biased. Still, Chomsky is a brilliant academic who has made profound contributions to computational theory, linguistics, and media studies, and whose politics is based on a profound rejection of tyranny in all its forms. Hernando de Soto, on the other hand, is a pretty bright fellow who is an expert on the mechanics of land titles, and who has made an entire career (and a not inconsiderable fortune) from an enormous talent for self-promotion and a single not-very-well-tested idea which appeals to the kind of people who attend Davos. (That is, that poverty can be ended through the magic of formal land titles, without requiring a single centavo of sacrifice from the Rich and Powerful.)

The problem with de Soto’s theory is that if he is right that slum-dwellers are sitting on trillions of dollars worth of potential assets, lacking only formal titles to achieve their value, then it is inconceivable that the Rich and Powerful will let the poor simply keep them. And as the Dalits noticed in Tamil Nadu, it is surprisingly easy for the Rich and Powerful (or even richer and less powerless) to intervene in the title reform process. Even if that fails, there is always the traditional fallback of buying the land cheap, on the observation that land appreciates in price exponentially as it is consolidated.

Having said all that, de Soto does have some useful observations about land titles. One of them, which he delivered as a keynote to a World Bank conference where he shows an unbelievable callousness about Arab fruitsellers driven to suicide by economic repression — a callousness which his audience appears not to horrify his on-site audience — is that a Tunisian (or Peruvian) street-vendor’s (in)formal right to set up his stall (or more likely her stall, in the case of Lima) is a kind of property right. De Soto seems to be of the opinion that had his Middle Eastern buddies and clients (who included both Mubarak and Gaddafi) listened to him more carefully, they could have avoided the Arab Spring, a theory I find to be a typical bit of de Soto exaggeration.

Still, the observation at its heart is undeniable: there are thousands of street vendors, and each of them has developed their clientele and their business by virtue of their constancy in a given spot. Their right to continue selling in that spot is really part of their capital stock, except that it is not recognized in any formal way. That’s not to say that street-vendors can’t buy and sell their location; or that they don’t have to pay someone for the privilege, or even that their is no enforcement protocol. All of the preceding exist; they are just not part of formal civic governance. Arguably, it would be better if they were. (But it might also be worse for certain individual street-vendors.) Probably very few land registries have a category for the tenure of street-vendors. And, a street-vendor might well ask, “if it doesn’t, what good is it anyway?”

As that example demonstrates, a property right does not necessarily include the right to put up fences. It might not be a 24-hour-a-day kind of right, or a 365-days-a-year kind of right. Maybe it’s the right to fish at a certain place in a certain river during the summer, which does not at all conflict with someone else’s right to hunt in the forest at exactly the same place in the winter. It is not at all obvious how to digitize these kinds of property rights, much less catalog them in a GIS-driven database.

If you’re interested in land rights, you probably should read de Soto. I guess. But please balance it by reading Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, which will tell you a lot more about the world. And, first, rush over (to Amazon, I guess) for Hugh Brody’s brilliant Maps and Dreams, from which my last example was paraphrased.

80

Matt 06.28.12 at 4:36 am

That’s not to say that street-vendors can’t buy and sell their location; or that they don’t have to pay someone for the privilege, or even that their is no enforcement protocol. All of the preceding exist; they are just not part of formal civic governance. Arguably, it would be better if they were. (But it might also be worse for certain individual street-vendors.)
Interesting. In New York City, at least some of the hot dog stand locations must be bid on from the city, and are extremely expensive. (Supposedly the rent for the ‘best’ location near the Met is around $360K/year or more.) Other stands pay only a licensing fee, though it seems there is a big black market, brought by the tight control on licenses. I suspect there is a strong “informal” system of regulating the location.

81

Scott Martens 06.28.12 at 6:14 am

rici@79: That’s one of the points that arises a lot in aboriginal land rights issues in Canada. Not all rights are compatible with modern cadastral data management schemes. The details of the James Bay Accord are very revealing as an effort by the Canadian state to fit atypical property rights into a cadastral scheme.

There’s a story – more of a morality play – that some big companies have offices and departments that only exist because SAP’s workflows require it. I don’t know if it’s ever true, but it is credible. The way we manage property rights imposes notions of property rights.

And let me second the endorsement of Mike Davis, although I have to disagree about Chomsky.

82

John Quiggin 06.28.12 at 6:18 am

My very brief take on the post+ comments

1. In a class society, the ruling/dominant class will be at the head of the line to take advantage of new technologies

2. The long run impact of tech change may be relatively favorable or unfavorable to the current ruling/dominant class

3. In the long run, most technological progress benefits most people, if not all equally

My personal take, mostly agreeing with Tom, I think

Open data mostly benefits people in general more than existing elites (how broadly depending on learning curves etc) but this isn’t automatic, and we need to be careful about the specifics if we want to maximize benefits and minimize corporate capture.

83

Kevin Donovan 06.28.12 at 9:05 am

This has been a good discussion, but in general I think it suffers from the (perfectly understandable) first-world bias of the CT audience (to which I am certainly susceptible, as well). The value of the research that Slee (and I) have relied on is the long-term engagement with the context of transparency and open data initiatives. Too often the conversation around this issue – and other technology assessments – devolves to sweeping generalizations of supposed ‘laws’ about how technology will impact different populations over time. For example, the teleological arguments – such as Quiggin’s (@11) that “debate is open to more people, and a broader section of the public, than it was before” – ignore the specific context and matter of relative (dis)empowerment (thought in general that term is used too loosely). The literature on the Matthew Effect is relevant here, as well.

One of the better books on these issues is Kregg Hetherington’s ethnography Guerilla Auditors which looks at the politics of transparency in Paraguay. Paraguay has tried time and time again (with USAID / WB support) to digitize their land titles, influenced by de Soto (whose spectre looms large in this, as Doug M. @52 points out). Amongst his findings, Hetherington shows that you cannot understand what ‘open data’ or ‘transparency’ means in Paraguay without understanding the political context, namely the conflict between affluent cosmopolitan liberals and the rural campesinos. While the former want land title transparency as part of a general anti-corruption effort, it is imbued with their distrust of campesino populist politics. In fact, the campesinos are quite adept at negotiating the paper-filled bureaucracies of land titling, suggesting the continual push for openness and transparency is hardly user-driven (to adopt the open data discourse).

In a way, this supports the point made by de la Pena (@63) about top-down versus bottom-up transparency initiatives, and although my paper Slee mentions might be read as supporting that, I think we should be cautious about the unintended consequences of even bottom-up transparency. Tom T. (@30) is spot-on in arguing that the actual practice and process of ‘doing transparency’ is crucially important, but if the outcomes are substantially the same, the worry about the more well-to-do populations being able to better realize the benefits of transparency remains.

Scott Martens’s (@27) suggestion about a “messy data” movement is fascinating and should be taken further. It reminds me of Sennett’s classic The Uses of Disorder and aligns with Slee’s argument in favor of civic virtue as opposed to consumer efficiencies. De Soto’s work has been well-supported and aligned with a neoliberal interest in economic efficiency and a general blindness to other values. Timothy Mitchell has an excellent chapter in http://www.amazon.com/Rule-Experts-Egypt-Techno-Politics-Modernity/dp/0520232623 that shows how Egyptian opposition to clear titling is a political effort, making it less likely that marginal populations will be dispossessed (Doug M. @52 makes similar points).

Finally, sometimes I find myself thinking that the cyber-utopian horse – as well as the often-related development silver bullet horse – has been beaten enough. But Morozov’s pithy definition of the phenomenon (to which Slee (@48) alludes) – all the good things are technologically determined and all the bad things are socially determined – shows up throughout this thread. Moving across country easily or getting to the bus on time are all triumphs of technological advance, but Dalit marginalization or the death of local associationalism are historically contingent and socially agreed upon. The asymmetry is striking, suggesting that certain horses are more resilient than I would hope.

84

Phil 06.28.12 at 9:18 am

JQ @11: Sure, the Internet hasn’t produced a situation where everyone is actively and equally involved in political debate, but the relevant question is whether the debate is open to more people, and a broader section of the public, than it was before, and the answer in general is “Yes”

Not sure. There was a bit of a debate a while back – you may remember Shirky on the Dean campaign, and if you don’t I can remember it for you – about whether the massive growth of online political participation was changing the world for good or for ill (by creating a generation of self-satisfied slacktivists who thought that a conscience-stroking mouse-click *was* political participation). A few years later an actual political scientist did some actual research, which I commented on at Tom’s blog, and found that there hadn’t been much of a change either way – political participation had been a highly specialised minority activity and it still was.

It’s about ‘opening up’ in a qualitative rather than quantitative sense – email, say, has clearly changed from a geeky minority activity to something with near-universal takeup, and (while this may be a massive straw man) I think a lot of open government people hoped to open up democratic participation in this sense, enabling the great majority who see it as esoteric and dull to see it as straightforward and engaging. If the actual result is that it’s opened up in the sense of bringing a few more people into the geeky minority, that’s significant (and disappointing).

OP, quoting Donovan quoting Scott:

A thoroughly legible society eliminates local monopolies of information and creates a kind of national transparency through the uniformity of codes, identities, statistics, regulations and measures.

The phrase that keeps going round in my mind is “tacit knowledge” – and it’s mightily ironic that we appear to be seeing the imposition of a state-like framework of legibility together with the introduction of markets in the newly-legible information; God knows what Hayek would have made of it. I wouldn’t want to romanticise tacit knowledge – some of it is a pain in the neck and needs ironing out (“Ah, you were waiting for the 6.00 bus – that would explain it. The 6.00 bus never runs on Tuesdays – never has done. Except in winter, of course…”). But ironing out informal patterns of ownership, in particular, is unlikely to play out in favour of people with less power and resources; the question isn’t whether to oppose developments like those described at the top of the post, but how.

85

Alex 06.28.12 at 9:24 am

And yes, I do feel uncomfortable taking a stand for estate agents.

Well, yes. That almost amounts to a self-refuting argument (especially if you read Rentergirl’s collection of letting-agent horror stories). There are reasons why people are suspicious of middlemen.

Also, British newsagents don’t sell bus tickets and never did (you buy them from the driver, or the conductor if you’re over 50).

86

Kevin Donovan 06.28.12 at 9:46 am

Phil (@84), yep, a lot of this is about tacit knowledge. Scott’s last chapter sets out a theory of craft-like knowledge as an alternative to the modernist approach that tends to destroy local, tacit knowledge.

Btw, any way to fix my HTML error in above comment (@83)?

87

Alex 06.28.12 at 9:56 am

political participation had been a highly specialised minority activity and it still was.

Indeed. The thing is, all efforts to improve political representation face this problem. That includes the Miners’ Welfare. The labour aristocracy? That would be the ones reading up and holding committee meetings when they could be in the pub.

I suspect hoping that better tools -> a bigger engaged minority is a utopia, but not a very good one. One of the difficult things about “inclusion” is that to be included, you have to take positive action. The absence of barriers doesn’t necessarily have an attracting effect. Of course, this is often used as an excuse, but it is still true that political participation is participation. You have to do stuff. When you could be in the pub.

Personally, I’ve always assumed that the point is to augment the capability of the engaged citizen vis a vis state and corporate power. I’m not fool enough to think Project Lobster will get more traffic than Pornhub; but I do hope it will be a valuable boost to normal people versus the lobby.

88

tomslee 06.28.12 at 12:06 pm

It has been worth being on the losing end of rici’s smackdown (#76) and Alex’s (various) to read the depth of discussion here, and thanks JW & Phil & Kevin for standing up for tacit knowledge better than I can (and for reminding me I should have credited Morozov).

Following Scott Martens #81 I am compelled to tell one other story. Many years ago I joined a software company, for which I still work, and we got into the business of selling databases for embedded and mobile applications. I ended up on the mobile side, and while the company was clearly a straightforward enterprise software company I thought at least those mobile apps would put information in the hands of the employees, enabling them to have richer work. That has indeed happened in some cases (especially, I might say, in poorer countries), but on balance the opposite effect has triumphed, which is that business rules can now be applied right out to the edges of an organization, as anyone who has been told “I’d love to give you a refund, but the system won’t let me” knows.

Anyway, long story short and all that, but the company has been purchased by a set of increasingly large outfits culminating in the recent purchase by a major German firm not entirely unrelated to Scott’s comment. Obviously I do not speak for them. I am unable to verify his claim, but let’s just say I am wrestling with the tension between efficiency and tacit knowledge on a daily basis.

89

piglet 06.28.12 at 3:19 pm

Peter 58:

“General point is that actual ecosystems get richer when they slow down the energy moving through them, as this leads to more capture, more niches and a denser web of interdependencies. I don’t know how far this translates into human social systems, but I think it does partially. In which case, preserving inefficiencies has benefits.”

I think that this applies in the case of physical transport. Transport has become too cheap, mostly because of public subsidies and socialized externalities. This is what has made possible the destructive effects of our globalized economy, all papered over by the mantra “low prices for consumers”. And I repeat it couldn’t exist without massive public subsidy so it can’t be explained as a “natural” tendency or whatever. It’s not “efficient”, economically or otherwise. So in that context there is something to be said for slowing down. But whether an analogous argument can be made for data and communications I’m not so sure.

90

piglet 06.28.12 at 3:48 pm

rici 79:

As that example demonstrates, a property right does not necessarily include the right to put up fences. It might not be a 24-hour-a-day kind of right, or a 365-days-a-year kind of right. Maybe it’s the right to fish at a certain place in a certain river during the summer, which does not at all conflict with someone else’s right to hunt in the forest at exactly the same place in the winter. It is not at all obvious how to digitize these kinds of property rights, much less catalog them in a GIS-driven database.

As far as I know, some of these kinds of rights (conceptualized as use rights and not as individual property rights) have been recognized in traditional societies for a long time. Modern capitalistic property rights regimes however don’t support multi-layered and complex use rights arrangements. Capitalism has introduced the concept of absolute land property never recognized in any precapitalistic society and has aggressively extinguished the kind of non-absolute use rights you are referring to. I don’t think this has anything to do with an inability of GIS to handle such rights, and everything to do with property rights ideology.

91

piglet 06.28.12 at 4:02 pm

As an aside, does nobody think that Ivan Illich (Tools for Conviviality) is relevant for this discussion?

92

rici 06.28.12 at 4:26 pm

piglet @ 90: Yes, that is pretty well the point I was trying to make. (And thanks for being more explicit than I was.)

The issues have a lot more to do with the ideology of property rights than with “open data”. Many property rights were aggressively extinguished long before there were even words to describe the open data movement, some with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen, to quote the original verse.

In addition, what I meant to say is that the land registry is really not so much “seeing like a state” as “seeing like a land speculator”; the state is just an intermediary in the transaction.

The only thing I disagree with here is “Modern capitalistic property rights regimes however don’t support multi-layered and complex use rights arrangements”. Actually, I think modern capitalism supports some highly complex use rights arrangements, including, for example, holiday condominiums. It doesn’t support traditional use rights which belonged to the poor and powerless, but that is not because it couldn’t figure out how to codify them if it wanted to.

93

bianca steele 06.28.12 at 4:49 pm

In a class society, the ruling/dominant class will be at the head of the line to take advantage of new technologies

I don’t want to derail the thread, but won’t the ones at the head of the line to be aware of new technologies be the ones who are closest to the means of production, regardless of who owns them?

94

piglet 06.28.12 at 5:54 pm

rici 92: as an addendum, there is a curious instance where US property rights are conceptualized as “layered”: the distinction between mineral and surface rights, and the very curious concept that the former trump the latter. It is also interesting that the system is least open and transparent in that area – it is extremely difficult in the US to find out who holds the mineral rights to one’s own property.

95

Jerry Vinokurov 06.28.12 at 6:25 pm

This thread has taken a turn for the tacit over the last two dozen comments are so, and I want to offer some push-back on that point.

There seems to be a tacit (pardon the pun) assumption here that tacit knowledge is some sort of undisputed good. I’m not convinced that this is the case, or that the tradeoff between types of tacit knowledge is clearly resolvable in favor of the older variant. In fact, to some extent, this is the inverse of the techno-utopian argument. That argument goes something like this: if technological advance n is good, technological advance n + 1 is even better. Obviously, there’s no reason to believe that this is true. But now consider the argument that goes “technological advance n is bad because it eliminates the tacit knowledge that existed before it,” which is something that a lot of people in this thread are either saying outright or hinting at implicitly. Playing the reductio game, why is this: “technological advance n – 1 was bad because it eliminated the tacit knowledge that existed before it” any less true? And we can run that induction backwards to our heart’s content, just like the techno-utopians run theirs forward.

Now, it doesn’t seem like any of us actually want to do that. No one (I think?) wants to run the tree of technological advancement backwards 10,000 years until we’re all hunting and gathering again. But I don’t see anywhere here a principled (or even unprincipled) way of figuring out where to stop. Why open data and not the printed word? Furthermore, there’s been a lot of talk in this thread criticizing open data proponents of attributing the good to the technology and the bad to the social uses. That’s fair, but on the other hand, the reverse doesn’t work either. Just to cite Kevin Donovan’s paragraph as an example, the problem with this:

But Morozov’s pithy definition of the phenomenon (to which Slee (@48) alludes) – all the good things are technologically determined and all the bad things are socially determined – shows up throughout this thread. Moving across country easily or getting to the bus on time are all triumphs of technological advance, but Dalit marginalization or the death of local associationalism are historically contingent and socially agreed upon.

is that it actually ignores the fact that Dalit marginalization is historically contingent. I am by no means a scholar of Indian history, but there’s a reason the Dalits are called “untouchables.” They’ve been at the bottom of the caste ladder for centuries. And if we move beyond the Dalits to rural populations in Paraguay, I suspect we’d find similar patterns: a community of have-nots with a history of being repressed by the haves continues to suffer repression, except via different mechanisms. I don’t see any way of separating the phenomena of technological advancement and its social uses in a way that’s going to tell us what parts are attributable to the specific technology in play and what part is due to pre-existing social conditions. It seems to me that at some basic level these things co-evolve and a clean separation between them is impossible. Digital land titles may aid city dwellers in dispossessing campesinos but history suggests that they’d have come up with some other way to do it if that option wasn’t available.

What we can do is diagnose the abuses and try to come up with workable remedies. Insofar as land titles are concerned, it seems like the Canadian policy of taking oral histories into account is a really good one. But that’s can be an open data solution too, actually; in an ideal world, someone interested in verifying a title (or possibly the means by which the title was established) would visit a government website where they could, say, click on a recording of someone’s testimony with regard to that piece of land. In short, I don’t see a rolling-back of data accessibility as a desirable situation, or as something that’s going to really fix the underlying problems; on the other hand, it’s likely to take us back to an era of much lower governmental transparency, which I think is a negative.

96

Matt 06.28.12 at 6:35 pm

No one (I think?) wants to run the tree of technological advancement backwards 10,000 years until we’re all hunting and gathering again.

Well, someone upthread did invoke Ivan Illich, who seems to think life has all been down-hill since we moved past the donkey cart, so there may be some support for a weaker, but nonetheless insane, version of this idea around here.

97

David Turner 06.28.12 at 6:36 pm

tomslee,
Better link for my first link in #45. However, in accordance with Hartman’s Law, your second link in #75 is missing.

I agree that representing fares are hard, and I’ve tried to improve fares support in GTFS. Unfortunately, the problem is so complicated that it’s hard to get a critical mass of people together to fix it. It’s also tough to figure out how to represent seemingly simple systems like NYC’s without thinking like a programmer, which is of course not what anyone wants to require.

However, I don’t think that the standardization process is necessarily the distraction from provision of fare data. I just checked a few random small agencies and in all cases found their fare information in a single click from their home page, whether or not they had GTFS data available. There is a chicken-and-egg problem where agencies don’t want to learn a complicated new format without software support, and software developers don’t want to support anything with no users.

In a confluence of discussions on this thread, I’m actually working on a World Bank-funded project that will be collecting fare data and hopefully augmenting GTFS with the per-kilometer fare systems more common in the third world. Hopefully this will lead to feature envy, so I can implement more of the world’s fare systems.

98

piglet 06.28.12 at 7:33 pm

Matt 96: Ivan Illich is relevant here precisely because he attempted to develop criteria for distinguishing between technology that is socially beneficial and technology that is destructive. Feel free to disagree with him but please come up with a better argument. The whole thread seems to revolve around the notion “everybody thinks technological progress is always good but surprise surprise we find instances where technology is abused by the powerful”. That anybody would be surprised by these dynamics between power and technology is a huge step back behind Illich and contemporary thinkers. Similarly, Jerry 95’s suggestion that we have to either always cheer technology or go back to living in caves is such a huge step back from where these discussions have been in the 1970s and 80s, it is truly discouraging.

99

Jerry Vinokurov 06.28.12 at 7:51 pm

Similarly, Jerry 95’s suggestion that we have to either always cheer technology or go back to living in caves is such a huge step back from where these discussions have been in the 1970s and 80s, it is truly discouraging.

That’s not what I’m saying. I pointed out that the inverse of the “technology is unambiguously good” isn’t any more tenable than the original statement. In particular, arguments like “technology X destroys the need for tacit knowledge Y” isn’t a great way of arguing for, or against, anything. I am not familiar with Ivan Illich, but I’m doing some cursory googling right now and if people would like to link things relevant to this discussion, that would be great.

Just to backtrack once more, this has turned into a general debate about the merits of technological advancement, but it started (I think) as a discussion of open data specifically, and its shortcomings and benefits. So far, I haven’t seen anything to convince me that the openness of the data, as such, is somehow causing the problems being described. It looks a lot like the powerful taking advantage of the powerless in a very old-fashioned way, augmented, yes, by technological advancements. As pithy as Morozov’s dictum is, it doesn’t provide a very good baseline for evaluating whether we should adopt some technology or not.

100

bianca steele 06.28.12 at 7:59 pm

Maybe there is a standard definition of the term that I’m unfamiliar with, but I’d like to challenge the appropriateness of the term “tacit knowledge.” I took Phil to be drawing a crude dichotomy between extremes, not claiming that, for example, customers’ knowledge of the bus schedule, or carpenters’ knowledge of how to measure a length of wood, are somehow not real knowledge: unavailable to them for articulate verbalization, acted on in ways that surprise the actors themselves, etc.–something I think nobody here would want to claim as their meaning.

101

Bruce Wilder 06.28.12 at 8:44 pm

I thought the original post did a good job of making explicit, an understanding that information is economically useful as the feedback loop for implementing systems of control, but much of the thread seems determined to lose track of the implications.

There’s a simple basis for claiming that technical advance entails welfare-enhancing “progress”, at least as a first-order effect, even in the face of significant social conflict over wealth distribution. It is simply that improvement in technical control reduces waste and error.

A change in the control regime, which didn’t reduce waste and error, but simply changed the distribution of (social) power and wealth, would not constitute technical progress.

The hidden agenda in a discussion of technical progress is too likely to be the suppression of conflict over material interest. The authoritarian regime, which eliminates or suppresses conflict also eliminates much of the incentive to apply technical change to progressive elimination of waste and error, and opens a door to employing control regimes, and their technical means, to the extension and elaboration of exploitation of one class or region by another. It is not clear to me that technological advance in computing or communication is anything, but neutral: in principal, it enhances the power of the periphery as well as the center, at least where social and political institutions permit, and the balanced enhancement of power is the welfare-enhancing sweet spot.

With regard to land titles and property law, the critical thing is a constitutional order, in which government provides, as a true public good, an infrastructure for the resolution of conflict, whether in law courts or “markets”, the power to dominate is kept restricted. The significance of land titles is not as information, per se, but as a means to invoke to the power of the state in social and economic conflict. When a system of property law works well, it is when, in true Coasian fashion, people are forced to negotiate their conflicting interests and claims with one another. When it works badly, is when some people are able to completely dominate others, and the latter are forced to retreat to the redoubts of resistance, known as “crime”, “grey markets”, etc.

The evolution of English property law from the traditional claims of serfs and lords to communal rights and fie was an evolution from the feudal domination of the military caste of the landed aristocracy — a gangster class of pure kleptocrats. The Tudor program of greatly expanding the land-owning classes — titled and not-titled — was coupled to a program of de-militarizing the ambitions of the landed as well as measures, such as the Statute Against Frauds, which limited their ability to dominate their social inferiors in the law courts, as well as their ability to carry on conflict by private violence.

Returning to the economic significance of information, in the context of economizing control regimes, the capacity to secure economic rents (or quasi-rents) remains critical to the ability to finance, and recover, sunk-cost investments and the “overhead” entailed by administrative regulation, whether by government agencies, or private business corporations with extensive bureaucracies, or semi-private entities, like trade unions and public-interest associations.

Advocacy of “open data”, on what seem to be criteria of transparency derived from notions of moral purity, with neoliberal programs to eliminate productive conflict through deregulation and using the predatory market-state to replace the welfare state’s social protections with wealth pumps and efficient rent extraction on behalf of elite capitalists and giant banks and multinationals, strikes me as suicidally naive. High-minded luddite denial, however, is not likely to lead to conceptualizing alternatives.

102

Jerry Vinokurov 06.28.12 at 9:15 pm

Bruce, I’m breaking your last paragraph into two pieces:

1. Advocacy of “open data”, on what seem to be criteria of transparency derived from notions of moral purity
2. neoliberal programs to eliminate productive conflict through deregulation and using the predatory market-state to replace the welfare state’s social protections with wealth pumps and efficient rent extraction on behalf of elite capitalists and giant banks and multinationals

In my view it’s entirely possible (and a good thing, in my view) to advocate for 1. That does not entail advocacy for 2. I certainly don’t advocate that at all, and perusing the material from the various T-Camp sessions (both those I attended and those I didn’t) I don’t recall too many people advocating for 2 either. The one guy who I thought did that was actually a guy (whose name I can’t seem to find) who heads Obama’s medical data sharing initiative (and unsurprisingly comes from the private sector).

103

Peter Erwin 06.28.12 at 9:19 pm

Matt K @ 46:
Switching from paper records to a GIS system allegedly allowed the Mudaliars to tamper with the records, but that’s merely incidental; how are paper records or an oral tradition would be any harder to suborn?

According to the article that Tom Slee linked to, the Mudaliar individual’s claim to the land dates to at least the 1970s, when the title he has was issued by the town government. The argument is that this was a period when the high-caste Mudaliars dominated the town government, so it would have been easy for them to have a fraudulent title issued for one of their own — if that’s indeed what happened.

A side comment on the OP:

As part of the program, the Tamil Nadu government declared that the digitized records would be the only evidence admissable in court for land claims, so the older records and less precise data that formed the basis of the Dalit claims lost any legal footing they had, and their claim was sunk

My reading of Raman’s paper is that this applies to the “Bhoomi” initiative of the neighboring state of Karnataka, not to Tamil Nadu. The problem facing the Dalits in Marakkanam is not so much that only digitized records are considered valid, but that they are unable to get records from the Forest Department which (they claim) would show the land is part of the common forest reserve, and thus not the personal property of the Mudaliar claimant. The Forestry Commission is apparently evading its requirements under the RTI (the Indian version of the Freedom of Information Act) to make these records available.

104

Bruce Wilder 06.28.12 at 9:44 pm

JV@102: “The one guy who I thought did that . . . heads Obama’s medical data sharing initiative (and unsurprisingly comes from the private sector)”

A mere coincidence, and an insignificant one, at that? Are you mad?

105

Jerry Vinokurov 06.28.12 at 9:49 pm

Bruce, I didn’t mean to imply that it was either a mere coincidence or insignificant; I included the detail precisely because I thought it relevant.

106

Peter Erwin 06.28.12 at 9:51 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 101:
With regard to land titles and property law, the critical thing is a constitutional order, in which government provides, as a true public good, an infrastructure for the resolution of conflict, whether in law courts or “markets”, the power to dominate is kept restricted. …

This commentary in Nature from 2008 mentions work by Manuel Eisner on historical homicide rates:

According to Eisner, European records reveal that 10–20% of medieval homicides were related to conflicts over land ownership. “Administrations that determine who owns what, and access to civil law courts that help you resolve disputed claims, make resorts to violence much less likely — in a modern society, it’s actually counterproductive,” he says.

So there’s that benefit as well.

107

Phil 06.28.12 at 10:26 pm

I pointed out that the inverse of the “technology is unambiguously good” isn’t any more tenable than the original statement. In particular, arguments like “technology X destroys the need for tacit knowledge Y” isn’t a great way of arguing for, or against, anything.

As the first person in the thread to use the phrase “tacit knowledge”, I call argumentum ad strawman. Here’s the relevant bit of my comment again:

it’s mightily ironic that we appear to be seeing the imposition of a state-like framework of legibility together with the introduction of markets in the newly-legible information; God knows what Hayek would have made of it. I wouldn’t want to romanticise tacit knowledge – some of it is a pain in the neck and needs ironing out (“Ah, you were waiting for the 6.00 bus – that would explain it. The 6.00 bus never runs on Tuesdays – never has done. Except in winter, of course…”). But ironing out informal patterns of ownership, in particular, is unlikely to play out in favour of people with less power and resources; the question isn’t whether to oppose developments like those described at the top of the post, but how.

No uncritical valorisation of tacit knowledge; no association of technology with the destruction of tacit knowledge; a clear focus on issues of power and resources.

In fact I only mentioned t. k. in the first place because – as I said – I was struck by the irony of the information produced by a process of “seeing like a state” then being parcelled up and brought to market, thus inverting the association between market mechanisms and t. k. which Hayek was so keen on. Ultimately the relative tacitness of local knowledge is secondary; the main issue is to do with the expropriation of powerless people, which may involve written land titles taking precedence over what Everyone Knows or may simply involve one lot of deeds taking precedence over another.

108

Jerry Vinokurov 06.28.12 at 11:02 pm

Phil, I was responding more to Kevin Donovan but in light of your comment, allow me to amend my earlier post to read “informal” rather than “tacit,” which is probably a better characterization of what people were talking about. Anyway, this:

Ultimately the relative tacitness of local knowledge is secondary; the main issue is to do with the expropriation of powerless people, which may involve written land titles taking precedence over what Everyone Knows or may simply involve one lot of deeds taking precedence over another.

is something I would agree with 100%. But the problem with this:

But ironing out informal patterns of ownership, in particular, is unlikely to play out in favour of people with less power and resources; the question isn’t whether to oppose developments like those described at the top of the post, but how.

is that it doesn’t take the alternative as a baseline. You’re almost certainly right about what will happen, but the alternative to “ironing out informal patterns of ownership” isn’t likely to be any better. The same people who are ripe for exploitation and expropriation in one scenario are very likely to be exploited and expropriated in the other. What specifically is supposed to be the sin of open data (and this isn’t even necessarily an open data sort of question) in all this is not clear to me.

109

tomslee 06.29.12 at 3:04 am

David Turner #97: the link is “calculating fares is tough.”

110

Bruce Wilder 06.29.12 at 6:36 am

JV: “What specifically is supposed to be the sin of open data . . . in all this is not clear to me.”

Moral purity. It is blinding.

111

Substance McGravitas 06.29.12 at 1:52 pm

Moral purity. It is blinding.

Say something practical so I can understand what you mean.

112

ajay 06.29.12 at 2:54 pm

90:Capitalism has introduced the concept of absolute land property never recognized in any precapitalistic society and has aggressively extinguished the kind of non-absolute use rights you are referring to.

No, that’s not correct at all. These non-absolute rights still exist in societies that have been capitalist for centuries. What’s more, they’re freely traded: you can buy (on the internet!) the right to fish at a certain place on the river on a certain day of the year, and that right will be digitised, legally defensible, and will not conflict at all with my right to go fishing there on some other day of the year. Some of them are inalienable: I have some explicit, digitised and legally defended rights over some bits of other people’s property, under the right of way laws.

113

Kevin Donovan 06.29.12 at 3:04 pm

Jerry,

“There seems to be a tacit (pardon the pun) assumption here that tacit knowledge is some sort of undisputed good…”

This, and what followed it, is a clear straw man, requiring a heroically convoluted reading. The point is that changes in the structure of access to knowledge (tacit or otherwise) are political changes, and ones that certainly have downsides for certain populations. If that seems banal, then consider yourself in the minority of open data supporters.

114

piglet 06.29.12 at 4:40 pm

ajay 112, I was probably slightly exaggerating when saying that capitalism extinguished all these use rights but your example of a fishing permit (if that’s what you are referring to) doesn’t invalidate my point. That’s more a fee for use. When Disney World gives you permission to stay on its premises for a limited time in return for paying a fee, they are not in the least compromising their absolute property rights.

115

rici 06.29.12 at 5:34 pm

piglet + ajay: Piglet was faster off the mark, but that’s exactly what I was going to say. I was slowed down by trying to find the internet sites which sold fishing permits (I’m not a recreational fisher, so I know little about it other than what my friends tell me) and what I could find did indeed suggest that it is rare for fishing permits to be “freely traded”; that is, I can buy one on the internet, but I need to provide my name and I cannot sell or even sublet it to someone else. So it is certainly not a conveyance of property.

Also, your right of way is not yours, personally. It’s a social right. You can’t prevent me from accompanying you on a right of way, for example. And they’re not exactly inalienable, either: the construction of the airbase at Upper Heyford, for example, interrupted several rights of way, including Aves Ditch, and afaik (I haven’t been back there for well over a decade), the dismantling of the airfield did not restore the rights of way. (That was assuming you were talking about English rights of way, although the example is still useful, I think.)

The question relevant to the OP is whether the digitization (and public dissemination) of rights of way was to the public good, and whether it might have created some hardship for a relatively powerless group of people. I’m inclined to think that it was to the public good, but for the sake of argument, let’s consider one of the few relevant powerless groups in England: the Travellers (Romanichal or gypsies). Travellers have certainly been known to violate rights of way by setting up camp over top of one, possibly without being aware of its existence. In such a circumstance, it can be used as an excuse for eviction; this can suddenly generate spontaneous support for a right of way, usually seen as a nuisance or even threat by landowners. So it is conceivable that the presence of a right-of-way on the Ordnance Survey could be used as a tool against Travellers. It must have happened at least once, although I don’t know of any specific case.

Beyond that, while rights-of-way don’t provide much immediate benefit to the underclass, I don’t see how free public dissemination of right-of-way map information harms them; the benefits mostly accrue to the middle-class, but that’s par for the course.

116

Substance McGravitas 06.29.12 at 5:46 pm

So it is conceivable that the presence of a right-of-way on the Ordnance Survey could be used as a tool against Travellers.

This, though, doesn’t seem new to me, poaching on the lord’s land being a not-wholly-dead cliché.

It reminds me of a case in India in which a guy started (and expanded) a college. He was a scammer of the first order and somehow got himself affiliated with a legitimate university, then people found out that he didn’t have a degree and his permissions were illegitimate and he was groping the students, mobs and pitchforks, arrests, jailbreaks, recaptures, et cetera. Anyway, in the course of building his college he had houses demolished, claiming they were on his land, and he pretty much got away with it before the aforementioned troubles. I can certainly see that open data might have helped him shift poor folks who held no title (though I do not know the land claims scenario) but I can also see such data being used to prove, even if the poor folks held no title, that bulldozer drivers and builders could be exposed to liability for following the crook’s plan to expand his buildings where he had no right.

117

rici 06.29.12 at 7:53 pm

Kevin Donovan:

But how can the statement:

…changes in the structure of access to knowledge (tacit or otherwise) are political changes, and ones that certainly have downsides for certain populations.

be anything but banal? At the very least, it is missing important details. Pretty well any change (whether defined as political or not, whatever you might mean by the adjective) has a downside for somebody, and mostly that somebody is part of a population we could characterize as poor and powerless. Even corrected with that substitution, it hardly seems controversial. Perhaps Hernando de Soto would disagree, at least in public, but I’ll bet even he would agree that the their would be no downsides for somebody, at least in the short-term.

I certainly accept the criticism you quote from Morozov. Let me be clear about my previous statement about public transit schedules: The Android app is a piece of technology, which was not a lot of work by someone and which makes a qualitative difference. But the underlying public transit system, without which the app would be meaningless, was a huge socially-determined project. Of course, it in turn depends in part on other technological advances, notably the train, but the most important aspect is the social organization which considers the provision of public transit important.

Thanks for the reference to Kregg Hetherington’s recent book, which sounds really interesting. I’ll try to find it; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be available in electronic format, and it’s in English which makes it unlikely to be stocked by any local bookstore. Meanwhile, I read his interesting essay (PDF) on “privatizing the private” in Paraguay. Fascinating. But I noted with interest Figure 1 from that essay, whose caption in full reads:

Satellite view of Tekojoja and Santa Clara separated by a river. I retrieved this from Google Earth (see http: // http://www.googleearth.com) for campesinos who wanted to use it to make political arguments.

118

Kevin Donovan 06.29.12 at 8:11 pm

Rici @117,

Yes, of course the one sentence retort was banal, but straw men only deserve so much… There’s much more nuance in the original paper, Slee’s posts and my original comment (not to mention your various comments, to which I will try to find the time to reply – with appropriate thoughtfulness – this weekend).

I noted with interest Figure 1 from that essay, whose caption in full reads…

Ha! (But in all seriousness, this is why the non-strawman arguments should be read as pragmatic efforts to find the right types of knowledge to reach an ethically desirable outcome, not a dogmatic attachment to ‘openness’.)

PS, for a shorter version of the book, look for his piece in Economy and Society. I can send it if you don’t have access.

119

rici 06.29.12 at 9:45 pm

Kevin Donovan,

…this is why the non-strawman arguments should be read as pragmatic efforts to find the right types of knowledge to reach an ethically desirable outcome, not a dogmatic attachment to ‘openness’.

Sure, completely agreed, but here’s a question:

Google Earth’s history, in a nutshell (from Wikipedia):

Google Earth is a virtual globe, map and geographical information program that was originally called EarthViewer 3D, and was created by Keyhole, Inc, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded company acquired by Google in 2004 (see In-Q-Tel).

Now, is there any way that would have passed the “right type of knowledge” filter before the images were publicly available?

I realize that it’s a loaded question. The satellite imagery in question is somewhere on the fringe of public and private (i.e. it belongs to private limited companies but there was a considerable public investment involved); it could be argued that the whole question has nothing at all to do with open government data. It is data, but arguably not public sector data, and Google makes it publicly but not openly available; the maps and images are copyrighted. So the open government data advocate could legitimately punt.

But suppose that there were some threat to the public distribution of satellite imagery through Google Earth. Google doesn’t have a monopoly on the data; it can be bought directly from the satellite owners, but Google is the only distributor available to people like me and Kregg (and the Paraguayan campesinos). Would we support the government objecting to Google Earth distribution? Or would we support the community of users?

120

Phil 06.29.12 at 10:41 pm

the alternative to “ironing out informal patterns of ownership” isn’t likely to be any better. The same people who are ripe for exploitation and expropriation in one scenario are very likely to be exploited and expropriated in the other.

This is a kind of radical mirror image of the economist’s fallacy – there’s no point checking for coins on the ground, because if there were any somebody would have picked them up by now. The alternative to ironing out informal patterns of ownership is that informal patterns of ownership persist. If they’re not allowed to persist, the change *may* be politically neutral (because all those people were being ripped off anyway) but it seems much more likely that it will involve an increased concentration of power and rate of exploitation – particularly if it’s driven by interests who don’t get out of bed except for a chance of increasing exploitation or power. The question is how to resist enclosure, and how to steer (or obstruct) processes liable to lead to enclosure-like outcomes so that they don’t do so.

121

shah8 06.30.12 at 12:46 am

Hmmmm….

I think this recent post by Steve Waldman:
http://www.interfluidity.com/v2/3359.html

illustrates with the greatest clarity and subtlety the nature of an actors vision and the perverse consequences thereof. Transparency and equitable balance of action does not mean that the resulting burdens on different segments of society are equitable. The consequences of deflation are worse for those afflicted by the policies than the consequences of inflation on vulnerable populations. Deflation is chunkier in impact (you lose your job, but only some of you), while inflation has a finer grained impact on a bigger population. Which has tended to mean that anti-inflationistas are able to build coalitions. It also means that divide-and-rule concepts are an important part of any policy consensus (you gotta be able to blame the victims for their ills).

So, taking our eyes off of Waldman, and looking at the Dalits described here…Isn’t what you see all about whether transparency admits zero sum politics? The impact of the transparency action is far more about building a coalition for any favored, but inequitous, disposal of resources. Let’s take our eyes off of the Dalits, and look in the US. Isn’t the focus on tests and accountability an attempt to build consensus with parents? Such that stakeholders of various sorts are better able redirect resources to their own projects? And the people who are most in contact (and who can relate with them) with the parents are reduced in respect and power. Thus making sure that politicians do not suffer from contact with what is otherwise a third rail?

I think there are plenty of nerds and geeks out there who are a fucking menace to decent society, sometimes, reading this thread. I mean, what do you think ratings agencies like Fitch or Moody’s were all about, (wo)man? To give you more information about the securities out there? Don’t make me laugh. The work they do is valuable, but it’s valuable to the public in only the most tangential way. However, they legitimated control fraud on a vast scale, and harmed the public in direct ways. Even so, since all they did was aid and abet, with the blessings of TPTB, they can’t be criminally or civilly called on the carpet the way Barclay’s just was, with LIBOR.

A refusal to perceive your actions as inherently political, and therefore worthy of thought about what, exactly, are you really doing, I think, justifies a condemnation of the nerd as being worse than Ted Kaczynsky. This is a post about seeing like a geek, with all that entails. This isn’t a seminar about how “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. The discussion is ultimately about the political and economic consequences of transparency, without evasion.

122

shah8 06.30.12 at 12:46 am

Hmmmm….

I think this recent post by Steve Waldman:
http://www.interfluidity.com/v2/3359.html

illustrates with the greatest clarity and subtlety the nature of an actors vision and the perverse consequences thereof. Transparency and equitable balance of action does not mean that the resulting burdens on different segments of society are equitable. The consequences of deflation are worse for those afflicted by the policies than the consequences of inflation on vulnerable populations. Deflation is chunkier in impact (you lose your job, but only some of you), while inflation has a finer grained impact on a bigger population. Which has tended to mean that anti-inflationistas are able to build coalitions. It also means that divide-and-rule concepts are an important part of any policy consensus (you gotta be able to blame the victims for their ills).

So, taking our eyes off of Waldman, and looking at the Dalits described here…Isn’t what you see all about whether transparency admits zero sum politics? The impact of the transparency action is far more about building a coalition for any favored, but inequitous, disposal of resources. Let’s take our eyes off of the Dalits, and look in the US. Isn’t the focus on tests and accountability an attempt to build consensus with parents? Such that stakeholders of various sorts are better able redirect resources to their own projects? And the people who are most in contact (and who can relate with them) with the parents are reduced in respect and power. Thus making sure that politicians do not suffer from contact with what is otherwise a third rail?

I think there are plenty of nerds and geeks out there who are a fucking menace to decent society, sometimes, reading this thread. I mean, what do you think ratings agencies like Fitch or Moody’s were all about, (wo)man? To give you more information about the securities out there? Don’t make me laugh. The work they do is valuable, but it’s valuable to the public in only the most tangential way. However, they legitimated control fraud on a vast scale, and harmed the public in direct ways. Even so, since all they did was aid and abet, with the blessings of TPTB, they can’t be criminally or civilly called on the carpet the way Barclay’s just was, with LIBOR.

A refusal to perceive your actions as inherently political, and therefore worthy of thought about what, exactly, are you really doing, I think, justifies a condemnation of the nerd as being worse than Ted Kaczynsky. This is a post about seeing like a geek, with all that entails. This isn’t a seminar about how “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. The discussion is ultimately about the political and economic consequences of transparency, without evasion.

123

lupita 06.30.12 at 6:29 am

I mean, what do you think ratings agencies like Fitch or Moody’s were all about, (wo)man?

Continuing in that vein, what about the IMF’s imposed transparency around the world? Countries dutifully publish all their capital accounts so speculators investors know exactly when to go in for the kill lose confidence. One may easily access historical charts of monthly inflation for any country in the world, but what about those humongous bubbles in real estate, commodities, equities, and private debt that still are not included in the measured basket of goods? We can get Greece’s rate spread in real time to four decimal places, but what about data on emigration, skipped meals, broken families?

124

Josh Tauberer 07.02.12 at 6:21 pm

Describing them as paradoxical “unintended consequences” (see Tauberer7 p 14) suggests they are anomalous edge cases, which misses the ubiquity of the problem.

Just for the record- I didn’t mean to suggest they are anomalous. In fact, I wrote that some of these consequences are unavoidable. That said, I’m not sold that the particular examples often discussed indicate open data was bad policy — for many of the reasons already brought up in the comments.

125

Jerry Vinokurov 07.02.12 at 8:44 pm

Alas, I have spent the last three days moving, and thus sans Internet, so I couldn’t continue the conversation. I had a fairly long reply half-composed, but since the thread has died down there’s not much point in posting it. Suffice to say that I continue to disagree with Tom Slee, Kevin Donovan, and Phil that “open data” is the cause of the problems they describe. Morozov’s dictum may be pithy, but his word is not final, and in this particular case, I believe he is mostly wrong; the problem is not openness, the problem is that large, vulnerable populations exist that can be exploited by powerful interests, and that this situation persists regardless of whether some government dataset is released into the ether. Finally, I just want to point people who are interested in what’s actually going on in open data (at least in the US) to the Sunlight Foundation’s projects page. As I think will be obvious to anyone who cares to peruse it, most if not all of those projects are aimed at uncovering the operations of government, which goal I think is admirable and worthy of support.

Comments on this entry are closed.