Does Open Data Need Journalism?

Paper by Jonathan Stoneman at Reuters Institute for Journalism: “The Open Data movement really came into being when President Obama issued his first policy paper, on his first day in office in January 2009. The US government opened up thousands of datasets to scrutiny by the public, by journalists, by policy-makers. Coders and developers were also invited to make the data useful to people and businesses in all manner of ways. Other governments across the globe followed suit, opening up data to their populations.

Opening data in this way has not resulted in genuine openness, save in a few isolated cases. In the USA and a few European countries, developers have created apps and websites which draw on Open Data, but these are not reaching a mass audience.

At the same time, journalists are not seen by government as the end users of these data. Data releases, even in the best cases, are uneven, and slow, and do not meet the needs of journalists. Although thousands of journalists have been learning and adopting the new skills of datajournalism they have tended to work with data obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation.

Stories which have resulted from datajournalists’ efforts have rarely been front page news; in many cases data-driven stories have ended up as lesser stories on inside pages, or as infographics, which relatively few people look at.

In this context, therefore, Open Data remains outside the mainstream of journalism, and out of the consciousness of the electorate, begging the question, “what are Open Data for?”, or as one developer put it – “if Open Data is the answer, what was the question?” Openness is seen as a badge of honour – scores of national governments have signed pledges to make data open, often repeating the same kind of idealistic official language as the previous announcement of a conversion to openness. But these acts are “top down”, and soon run out of momentum, becoming simply openness for its own sake. Looking at specific examples, the United States is the nearest to a success story: there is a rich ecosystem – made up of government departments, interest groups and NGOs, the media, civil society – which allows data driven projects the space to grow and the airtime to make an impact. (It probably helped that the media in the US were facing an existential challenge urgent enough to force them to embrace new, inexpensive, ways of carrying out investigative reporting).

Elsewhere data are making less impact on journalism. In the UK the new openness is being exploited by a small minority. Where data are made published on the website they are frequently out of date, incomplete, or of limited new value, so where data do drive stories, these tend to be data released under FOI legislation, and the resulting stories take the form of statistics and/or infographics.

In developing countries where Open Data Portals have been launched with a fanfare – such as Kenya, and more recently Burkina Faso – there has been little uptake by coders, journalists, or citizens, and the number of fresh datasets being published drops to a trickle, and are soon well out of date. Small, apparently randomly selected datasets are soon outdated and inertia sets in.

The British Conservative Party, pledging greater openness in its 2010 manifesto, foresaw armies of “Armchair Auditors” who would comb through the data and present the government with ideas for greater efficiency in the use of public funds. Almost needless to say, these armies have never materialised, and thousands of datasets go unscrutinised by anybody. 2 In countries like Britain large amounts of data are being published but going (probably) unread and unscrutinised by anybody. At the same time, the journalists who want to make use of data are getting what they need through FOI, or even by gathering data themselves. Open Data is thus being bypassed, and could become an irrelevance. Yet, the media could be vital agents in the quest for the release of meaningful, relevant, timely data.

Governments seem in no hurry to expand the “comfort zone” from which they release the data which shows their policies at their most effective, and keeping to themselves data which paints a gloomier picture. Journalists seem likely to remain in their comfort zone, where they make use of FOI and traditional sources of information. For their part, journalists should push for better data and use it more, working in collaboration with open data activists. They need to change the habits of a lifetime and discuss their sources: revealing the source and quality of data used in a story would in itself be as much a part of the advocacy as of the actual reporting.

If Open Data are to be part of a new system of democratic accountability, they need to be more than a gesture of openness. Nor should Open Data remain largely the preserve of companies using them for commercial purposes. Governments should improve the quality and relevance of published data, making them genuinely useful for journalists and citizens alike….(More)”