What Comes First: the Data or the Civic Hackers?

An interesting debate simmering over at the Global Integrity blog points to the complicated nexus between open data and development.

The exchange was sparked by a Guardian op-ed by Walid Al-Saqaf, a Yemeni journalist and open government advocate, in which he called on the Yemeni government to establish a digital open data site in the vein of the United States’ Data.gov and the United Kingdom’s Data.gov.uk.

Establishing an open data regime would be the best way to force accountability on the government, he said, and to secure the gains won by Arab Spring protesters who forced an end to the 33-year reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Global Integrity founder Nathaniel Heller argued this would actually be a poor use of funds considering Yemen has extremely poor Internet access and low levels of data and computer literacy. Information posted to such a site would be in danger of simply atrophying with no one to analyze it, Heller said. And putting donor money toward building the site would, by the hard laws of economics, mean that money wasn’t going to other worthy causes such as building up the nation’s Internet or mobile infrastructure.

Al-Safaq responded in the comments section to Heller’s post that it was mismanagement and a lack of public accountability that had kept Internet penetration in Yemen low to begin with. Building an open data site, he suggested, would attack the disease itself rather than just treat the symptoms.

“We can't keep on waiting until more people get access to the Internet before we demand transparency from the government to hold it accountable for the corruption, wasteful spending and poor performance, which have been holding Yemen back for decades,” he said.

As far as a data literate public, he said, Yemen has a vibrant community of journalists and activists who will learn to use the open data site if that’s where the stories are.

The problem is a thorny one. On one hand, open data sites do have the capacity to bring more and broader accountability to government. On the other hand, they’re far from a panacea for corruption, secrecy and incompetence in government. To begin with, it’s the same government officials who presumably aren’t answering journalists’ and activists’ questions now who would be in charge of posting data to the site. Even American “civic hackers” have often expressed disappointment with the quality and type of information posted to Data.gov.

The dispute also raised another interesting question for me: how vital an ingredient is a local civic hacker community? In other words, if the data is online and the delivery mechanism for the news resulting from that data is there -- independent newspapers and radio broadcasts -- then would it be possible to farm out some or much of the digging through that data to civic hacker types elsewhere who are deeply invested in the success of democratic reforms in the Middle East? Maybe including the Yemeni diaspora?