Why Open Government Data is vitally important

Recently, the Global Open Data Index 2015 ranked Rwanda as the most available government open data in Africa, elevated to 44th in 2015 from 74th in 2014. Indeed, this is one of the most remarkable achievements in recent years. As one reads this simple piece three obvious questions may arise: what is Open Government data? And why should it be a priority? How can Open Government data be rightly balanced with privacy―in a human rights perspective? 

Open Government Data (OGD) acts an umbrella term for many different ideas and concepts. The core issues of OGD consist of transparency, participation and collaboration of the state towards third actors like the economy or the citizenship. Most often, Open Government Data is equated with E-Government and the usage of information and communication technologies. The realisation of central points is the free access to certain data. Because government agencies have large amounts of data which could be made accessible for the purpose of the Open Data Movement, the discussion about the opening process, data protection considerations and secret reservations of data is paramount.

In particular, many public organisations produce and collect a broad range of different types of data in order to perform their tasks. The extraordinary quantity and centrality of data collected by governments make these data particularly significant as a resource for increased public transparency. Open Government Data, which was underlined in the recent summit on ‘Transform Africa’ themed ‘Accelerating Digital Innovation’, can be used to help public better understand what the government does and how well it performs, and to hold it accountable for wrongdoing and unachievable results.

Open Government Data should be a priority for two crucially important reasons. The first is the right to information paradigm, which promotes a public right of access to information from a human rights perspective. In addition to transparency and accountability, open government seeks to increase citizen participation in governance through a variety of new forms of engagement, some of which may include social media, in decision-making and planning which can lead to improvement of government performance as well as the lives of citizens.

In Rwanda, for instance, the recent referendum that endorsed the amendment of the Rwandan Constitution, reflects citizens’ participation in determining their destiny.

The second is the Open Government movement, which uses predominantly social and economic arguments to encourage the opening up of government data. The latter claims that putting such information into public domain benefit society by creating conditions for more social inclusive services delivery and for more participatory democracy. Arguably, it can stimulate the economy by allowing the possibility for third parties (e.g. individuals, private enterprises, civil society organisations). In other words, Open Government Data is seen as important source of economic growth, new forms of entrepreneurships and social innovation. On the issue of transparency, it can be argued that it offers better insight into operations of government, the spending of public money, and the extent to which government can be held accountable should be given priority over disclosures that are more related to satisfy curiosity, or provoking public debate. It is important, however, to assert that open government not only aims at shedding light on government operations, but also to make more and more data available as a way to encourage innovation.

To date, the big challenge lies on developing a principled approach that rightly balances the dissemination of government information, on the one hand, in paradigm of transparency and accountability and, on other one hand, ensuring adequate protection to privacy rights. In this context, the purpose for collection of data principle requires consideration of whether the access of information to the public is consistent with the purpose for which it was collected. The access to information in the open data context, especially as information technologies continue to advance and the privacy issues continue to become increasingly complex. The diminishment of privacy generally may lead to harms such as the loss of dignity or autonomy, or may raise concerns about security or physical integrity. Government institutions, that are regarded as the storehouse, or the custodian of information, should inform individuals from whom they collect information of the purpose for which the information is being collected and to obtain consent from those individuals for uses beyond or inconsistent with that purpose.

Indeed, the challenge for most governments today is to achieve the desired transparency and accountability without exposing individuals to an unwarranted loss of privacy. Here, one thing can be said in the case of public personal information, government at all levels must consider whether the amount of personal information disclosed in the public records in the analogue environment is appropriate and necessary in a digital and networked environment. In a sense, because public personal information has already been publicly accessible, it may require a reassessment of the degree of openness in lens of transparency vis-a-vis the interests of privacy.

Well, to put it in a nutshell, an explicit regulatory and policy framework is needed to define the contours for which personal information in the records at issue is necessary to achieving the goals of transparency.

The writer is an international law expert and lecturer