As politicians promise more and more openness, there is one big gap in our understanding: Who is using all this information?
Work on Freedom of Information showed that nailing down users is tricky. Our best guess is FOI users are a diverse mix of public, businesses, NGOs and (a few) journalists (see this attempt at a typology of FOI users written with Greg Michener). But because we don’t know, all sorts of myths and claims fill this gap in our knowledge. Tony Blair believes FOI is ‘mostly’ used by journalists and David Cameron probably thinks similarly, given that he believes those using FOI are ‘furring up the arteries of government’-see this table from our evidence to the Justice Select Committee for our best guess.
Estimated Requester Groups to Local and Central UK government compared with EU Access to Documents legislation (%)
|Requester group||Local Government||Central Government||EU Access to documents Legislation|
So what about Open Data? My own research and other work in to the impact of publishing all spending over £500 points to a few interesting things. First, local use seems low. Most authorities appear to registering a few hundred views a month of their online spending information, though a few are far higher (see also this research from the Finnish Institute and this transparency survey from the LGA).
Estimated Breakdown of Requester Groups-FOI and Spending Data (%)
|Requester group||Local Government FOI||Local Government Spending Data|
Second, local users are diverse. We seem to be seeing a mixture of businesses, NGOs, members of the public and a sprinkling of journalists. Who the ‘public’ are remains a bit of a mystery. Like FOI, they may be a hard core group of activists with a wider, looser group made up of the curious or those seeking very specific information. Research into the government’s data portal by Tim Davies found a similar mixed group of activists and ‘techy’ people.
So what does this mean? It means that any impact on local government is likely to be uneven and unpredictable. It could create odd or perverse incentives. A journalist highlighting spend data on hotel bills will have a very different reaction from an authority than a business looking for spending on stationary or a member of the public seeking allotment costs.
It also quite fragile. Like participation in politics generally, all this Open Data it depends on a few people getting active and involved. Whether such uneven and fragile work can create an army of auditors or bring big changes to how local authorities work is another matter.
The low use also tells us that this spending information isn’t precisely what is wanted. As the Local Government Association has pointed out, and ten years of FOI tell us, people want information of value to them-‘real time’ bin collection activity and costs not spreadsheets. But that’s not to say they cannot be merged, as I argue in my research.
Finally, if you are an Open Data user can you help with my survey?