Open data and social inclusion
October 2016 to June 2017
Supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
African Minds is writing a chapter on the relationship between open data and social inclusion for a forthcoming book that zeros in on the interconnection between openness and processes of both inclusion and exclusion in development. The book brings together the latest research that cut across a wide variety of political, economic and social arenas — from governance to education to entrepreneurship and more. The chapters draw on a wide and diverse range of applications of openness, uncovering the many critical and underlying elements that shape and structure how particular openness initiatives and/or activities play out — and critically — who gets to participate, and who benefits [or not] from openness.
The term Open Development was first explored at length in the 2013 MIT Press publication, Open Development: Networked Innovations in International Development. This book was the first significant effort to theorize the connections between the increasingly influential paradigm of “openness” and international development.
A lot has happened since the writing of Open Development. “Openness” as a normative value and set of practices has seen continued growth in application and significance within international development. Openness has moved beyond a fringe concept, with associated promises and hype, towards a more mainstream set of principles and activities with thousands of experiments and implementations happening around the world. Alongside these activities is an increasing amount of research and learning on what works, what doesn’t, why, for whom, and in what contexts.
A core value of openness is that it is inclusive: it is supposed to democratize access to informational resources and ultimately shift the locus of control from centralized organizations to decentralized networks. As governments open up, they cede power to civil society who in theory can better hold their governments to account resulting in improved governance and services. Emerging research shows, however, that in many cases openness as implemented in a diversity of development contexts can exclude as well as include. How openness is structured, the contexts in which it is embedded, and other factors, determine who benefits or not, and who might even be harmed by it. Indeed, a critique of openness in development is that it is not living up to this value and promise, and that, in fact, openness will tend to benefit those who already have [resources, access and skills] and not those who need the open resources the most. If openness is embedded in an already unequal society, then shouldn’t we expect the results of openness will also by unequal, particularly where access to digital tools and skill sets are limited.
The challenge, then, of open development is to enable it to fulfil its core value of inclusion. This requires an explicit examination of how and in what context open initiatives are inclusive. We need to learn from the successful and unsuccessful initiatives. Critically, we need to know who is included and who is excluded, why that is, and how it can be addressed.