Teaching Open Data for Social Movements: a Research Strategy

Alan Freihof Tygel and Maria Luiza Machado Campo at the Journal of Community Informatics: “Since the year 2009, the release of public government data in open formats has been configured as one of the main actions taken by national states in order to respond to demands for transparency and participation by the civil society. The United States and theUnited Kingdom were pioneers, and today over 46 countries have their own Open Government Data Portali , many of them fostered by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international agreement aimed at stimulating transparency.

The premise of these open data portals is that, by making data publicly available in re-usable formats, society would take care of building applications and services, and gain value from this data (Huijboom & Broek, 2011). According to the same authors, the discourse around open data policies also includes increasing democratic control and participation and strengthening law enforcement.

Several recent works argue that the impact of open data policies, especially the release of open data portals, is still difficult to assess (Davies & Bawa, 2012; Huijboom & Broek, 2011; Zuiderwijk, Janssen, Choenni, Meijer, & Alibaks, 2012). One important consideration is that “The gap between the promise and reality of OGD [Open Government Data] re-use cannot be addressed by technological solutions alone” (Davies, 2012). Therefore, sociotechnical approaches (Mumford, 1987) are mandatory.

The targeted users of open government data lie over a wide range that includes journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGO), civil society organizations (CSO), enterprises, researchers and ordinary citizens who want to audit governments’ actions. Among them, the focus of our research is on social (or grassroots) movements. These are groups of organized citizens at local, national or international level who drive some political action, normally placing themselves in opposition to the established power relations and claiming rights for oppressed groups.

A literature definition gives a social movement as “collective social actions with a socio-political and cultural approach, which enable distinct forms of organizing the population and expressing their demands” (Gohn, 2011).

Social movements have been using data in their actions repertory with several motivations (as can be seen in Table 1 and Listing 1). From our experience, an overview of several cases where social movements use open data reveals a better understanding of reality and a more solid basis for their claims as motivations. Additionally, in some cases data produced by the social movements was used to build a counter-hegemonic discourse based on data. An interesting example is the Citizen Public Depth Audit Movement which takes place in Brazil. This movement, which is part of an international network, claims that “significant amounts registered as public debt do not correspond to money collected through loans to the country” (Fattorelli, 2011), and thus origins of this debt should be proven. According to the movement, in 2014 45% of Brazil’s Federal spend was paid to debt services.

Recently, a number of works tried to develop comparison schemes between open data strategies (Atz, Heath, & Fawcet, 2015; Caplan et al., 2014; Ubaldi, 2013; Zuiderwijk & Janssen, 2014). Huijboom & Broek (2011) listed four categories of instruments applied by the countries to implement their open data policies:

  • voluntary approaches, such as general recommendations,
  • economic instruments,
  • legislation and control, and
  • education and training.

One of the conclusions is that the latter was used to a lesser extent than the others.

Social movements, in general, are composed of people with little experience of informatics, either because of a lack of opportunities or of interest. Although it is recognized that using data is important for a social movement’s objectives, the training aspect still hinders a wider use of it.

In order to address this issue, an open data course for social movements was designed. Besides building a strategy on open data education, the course also aims to be a research strategy to understand three aspects:

  • the motivations of social movements for using open data;
  • the impediments that block a wider and better use; and
  • possible actions to be taken to enhance the use of open data by social movements….(More)”