A story about when public data was too big, and maybe not so public after all

How open is Sweden to open data? Charlotta Duse investigates.

A daily routine at the local newspaper where I work, and at many others, is that the news chief goes to the town hall to fetch the daily public documents. In these documents one finds correspondence between institutions, decisions made in the municipality, prosecutions, judges, new guidelines, construction permits etc; basically anything that goes on nearby. 

Anyone can get these documents, the data is public and protected by the principle of public access (http://www.regeringen.se/content/1/c6/24/55/92/61c8bc18.pdf): a principle to make sure that the democratic system can be looked into, as well as to promote civic participation. Just as we saw in Abigails post Open Data, transparency is, and should be, one part of ”the good” of open data.

After getting the daily documents, the editorial sorts out what is of interest for its readers. (It should be pointed out that this is no objective process – here lies a big risk of misinterpretation, focus on some things while ignoring others, judging what is public interest and what is not etc.) After choosing the happenings of interest the reporter write his or her article based on the document, a document often written in a complicated language, in a manner that anyone can understand the information given in it.

But some time ago, colleagues in Kalmar had troubles getting access to these public papers. The reason? 

One women was requesting access to a huge amount of data from the municipality, which is something that she theoretically has right to. But by sending emails requesting documents every day, some 600 mails each month, the municipality staff in the town hall felt that there was no time for doing anything else. Some say that this women’s requests have demanded 1,5 full employments in time (http://www.svt.se/nyheter/regionalt/smalandsnytt/kalmar-kommun-blockerar-mejl). The municipality of Kalmar reasoned that this could not continue, since it was affecting their service, and decided to block this woman’s email and refused to contest her requests.

The open and public data was suddenly not so public anymore, because somebody actually wanted to see it all.

The decision has been questioned and debated: can one be neglected access to public data because of the reasons for wanting it, or for the load of information one wants? Who decides where the limit of enjoying public documents goes? Is there even a limit to public and open documents?

The Parliamentary Ombudsmen, the person who actually can decide in this case, said that Kalmar municipality had no right to deny someone the access to public documents. It is against the law, and the amount of information asked for was no excuse (http://www.jo.se/PageFiles/4751/180-2014.pdf). 

So Kalmar municipality got a smack on the fingers, the women started to send new requests the following day, and now the municipality might have to employ one extra person just to please one person’s eager for public documents. This is estimated to take 400,000 to 500,000 SEK from the municipality budget (http://www.expressen.se/kvallsposten/kvinna-far-ratt-att-brevbomba-kommun/). What would happen if there were one more persons asking for the same amount of information? Or 40 persons? The institution would collapse.

So the question is if this, pretty complicated and expensive, way to offer citizens the access to public papers is outdated? Is it reasonable that open data only is open when asked for in small amounts? Can the distributors of open data one day decide to not share its information anymore, especially when being a municipality? Governments and public institutions are described as the original gathers of information on a mass scale by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in the book Big Data – A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think. But at the same time as these governments and institutions have an invaluable collection of data, they are described as ineffective in using this public treasure by the same authors (Mayer-Schönberger&Cukier. 2013:pos.1786).  When open data is only open to a certain limit, one could say that the process seems ineffective, to say the least. 

So what would be an effective way to assure that open data stays open – no matter by whom and how it is asked for?

According to the OCHA-report Humanitarianism in the Network Age ”The standard definition is that data is only open when “anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it” (2012:29). But to have real value it must be truly open (meaning really available). Would digitalizing this material make it truly available? 

An argument for digitalizing the public documents would be to avoid problems like the situation in Kalmar in the future. Another argument would be the easy access, if the citizens could enjoy this privilege of open data online. This would be a step in making already available data more accessible. But one might also imagine scenarios when court decisions (with names, address, birthdays on them) etc are freely spread on the internet.

We can only wait and see what the future brings, and in this case what the municipality in Kalmar decides to do, but it is important to notice that a debate is taking place. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier spoke  about a ”open government data” initiative around the world when their book was published 1,5 years ago (pos 1786), and we can see examples of this here, here and here (as in many more places). Even the municipality of Kalmar itself calls the principle of public access ”unmodern” and ”not adjusted to our modern digital society” (http://www.barometern.se/kalmar/mejlbombade-kalmar-kan-fa-superservice/) and are now doing an investigation to see how they can solve these kind of issues in the future. The question is if this is what the woman who requested all these papers was also trying to do; show on the fragility of access to open and public documents, or if she is just a person obsessed with public data?

Either way she, and all other citizens, should be garantied that open data is really open.

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