Using Open Data to crowdsource better governance
Tony Blair, then UK Prime Minister, described the Public Access to Information act he had just signed as his worst mistake. "You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it."
His concern was that citizens would use the information as a mallet to hit politicians like him over the head.
In 2009, when the Telegraph used access to information, and a leak, to place politicians’ expenses claims into the public domain, all Blair’s nightmares came true. Numerous politicians resigned in disgrace and many were sentenced to fines or even prison.
Theyworkforyou.com allows UK residents to track every parliamentarian, how often they turn up in parliament, what they spend and how well they represent the interests of their constituents. Openspending.org aims to track every government financial transaction anywhere in the world. Ipaidabribe.com is a brilliant Indian initiative in which people can send an SMS documenting whenever they’re asked to pay a bribe, to whom, where and when.
It’s not all about bad politicians and public servants, though.
Dr Ben Goldacre, a writer criticising everything from the manipulation of medical trial results, to the silliness of homeopathy, has used publically-accessible health information to track every prescription written by every doctor in the UK.
He looked specifically at statins, cholesterol-lowering drugs used to reduce the risk of heart-attacks and strokes. These are expensive but generic versions are significantly cheaper. His research indicates that, if every doctor had prescribed generics they would have saved the UK healthcare system an estimated R2.5 billion. More research is now to look at further classes of medication to find additional savings.
Collectively, this publically-accessible information is called Open Data. Numerous countries have public disclosure rules for all tax-funded information, from scientific research, to school results, to traffic information. South Africa’s (the new information act permitting) goes further, including private company data releases.
It’s impossible to know what will be useful or how it will be used. In Dr Goldacre’s case, his research can allow doctor education and – for very little investment – a radical cost-saving for a government desperately looking for cost savings.
Other countries are piling in. Crime maps allow governments to target hotspots of interest to citizens. Pothole cluster mapping leads to rapid road repairs. Tax disclosures are embarrassing corporate financial shenanigans. And, yes, it is holding politicians’ toes to the fire.
This is not to say that such public disclosure will always result in anything useful happening. I think we are under no illusions that it is, essentially, impossible to embarrass a South African politician.
If President Jacob Zuma can’t muster even the hint of a blush regarding his illegitimate children, perpetually looming corruption investigations, and HouseCompoundGate epic expenditure, then it’s pretty clear that a little disclosure won’t stop corruption here.
But public information is useful. In 1854, Dr John Snow plotted the location of deaths from cholera in central London on a map. He noticed that most deaths were clustered around one of the water-pumps on Broad Street. At the time there was no piped water and thousands of people could be exposed to disease at a single source.
Dr Snow cut off the handle from the pump, saved 500 lives and ending the epidemic.
As countries have released data they’ve also stimulated a new industry. Programmers have clustered around these new data series and investors have followed. Interestingly, because the data are so closely bound to the country of origin, countries that have released more information, more often, are benefitting locally from this rapid investment. American developers play with American data. The same is happening in Germany, the UK, Australia and even Brazil.
What treasures await the person willing to explore South Africa’s public data trove? What politician is willing to take the risk that full disclosure will result in new opportunities?
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