Open Government vs. Open Data

A new research paper by Harlan Yu and David Robinson does an excellent job of tracing the history of the open government and open data movements and the way the two have been conflated, especially since the beginning of the Obama administration.

The authors do a good job of explaining why reporters and other traditional open government enthusiasts are often frustrated with that conflation and how it may encourage agencies to practice digital transparency only where there's no political downside.

"The Hungarian cities of Budapest and Szeged, for example, both provide online, machine-readable transit schedules," the authors note, "allowing Google Maps to route users on local trips. Such data is both open and governmental, but has no bearing on the Hungarian government's troubling lack of transparency."

That's not to say there's anything wrong with politically neutral government data disclosure, which the Obama administration has clearly excelled at and which can be, among other things, a great driver of innovation by Web and mobile developers.

But conflating releasing any old information with releasing the specific information journalists and critics are asking for can set a dangerous precedent.

"A government's commitment to be more 'open' can now be fulfilled in a wider variety of ways, which makes such a promise less concrete than it used to be," the pair write. "Whether used as a campaign slogan, in a speech or policy brief, or in a binding national or international policy instrument, the phrase 'open government' no longer has the force it once did. Existing documents and historical arguments that refer to open government may have lost some of their force, becoming more ambiguous in retrospect than they were when first authored."

Yu is a Ph.D. student in computer science at Princeton and works with that university's Center for Information Technology Policy. Robinson is a Yale law student and a Knight Law and Media Scholar in that school's Information Society Project.