Transparency and …

Interesting post, as usual – even though I sometimes disagree – from Owen Barder about transparency. I’ve stuck my oar in – again again – making the point that – CATCHPHRASE ALERT – “transparency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for securing effective accountability”.

Putting budget documents on-line and enhancing transparency about aid are great things to have done/be doing, and the work of AidInfo is very useful, but these sorts of initiatives do leave me pondering some questions or issues. As does Tim Berners-Lee’s motto of “Raw data now!” or AidInfo’s “Liberate the data”.

Anyway, three sets of issues:

1) To make sense of “raw data”, one needs a theory. I think that this sometimes gets forgotten as if one can just make sense of massive influxes of data, without some framework of/for understanding. A variant of this problem is when the theories that are shaping how “raw data” is selected, connected and interpreted are left unexamined as if they were value-neutral. At risk of straying into one of my gripes about mainstream economics, I’ll leave that one there …

2) To make the “raw data” or transparency deliver something useful – policy and practice that is better because it is based on better evidence, for instance – requires that there are structures and processes in place, let’s call them “accountability systems”. So – as well as not neglecting those – when people are trying to “liberate the data”, it’s important that they also think about how the data might best be used and whether that might make a difference to what data is liberated and how. I expect that the AidInfo initiative is doing this, and would be interested to know more.

3) I guess this is related to 1 and to 2 and at the moment I won’t say much about it, but it’s important to understand the political economy of data (including how the workings of accountability link to the generation/circulation/use of data). That is, to get your head round the system of data flows and to contribute to making it work better, you need to understand the political economy and the power dynamics of the production, distribution and consumption of data. It ain’t – despite the pretense of those who talk about evidence-based (rather than informed) policy – a politics free or value free system; to understand it – and change it – requires a clear recognition of that. If information/evidence/data is “the currency of accountability“, then a political economy perspective ought to have considerable value.

Ooops, sounding like a marxist again 😉

PS: I am coining a new term. Bloggybacking. Currently with only one google hit in the whole googlyverse. Promoting one’s own blog on the back of someone else’s better known efforts. Thanks Owen. And others!

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