Interesting intervention and warning from Michael Gurstein:
“Efforts to extend access to “data” will perhaps inevitably create a “data divide” parallel to the oft-discussed “digital divide” between those who have access to data which could have significance in their daily lives and those who don’t. Associated with this will one can assume, be many of the same background conditions which have been identified as likely reasons for the digital divide-that is differences in income, education, literacy and so on. However, just as with the “digital divide”, these divisions don’t simply stop or be resolved with the provision of digital (or data) “access”.
What is necessary as well, is that those for whom access is being provided are in a position to actually make use of the now available access (to the Internet or to data) in ways that are meaningful and beneficial for them.”
Michael also offers a case study to illustrate this:
“A very interesting and well-documented example of this empowering of the empowered can be found in the work of Solly Benjamin and his colleagues looking at the impact of the digitization of land records in Bangalore. Their findings were that newly available access to land ownership and title information in Bangalore was primarily being put to use by middle and upper income people and by corporations to gain ownership of land from the marginalized and the poor. The newly digitized and openly accessible data allowed the well to do to take the information provided and use that as the basis for instructions to land surveyors and lawyers and others to challenge titles, exploit gaps in title, take advantage of mistakes in documentation, identify opportunities and targets for bribery, among others. They were able to directly translate their enhanced access to the information along with their already available access to capital and professional skills into unequal contests around land titles, court actions, offers of purchase and so on for self-benefit and to further marginalize those already marginalized.
Certainly the newly digitized information was “accessible” to all on an equal basis but the availability of resources to translate that “access” into a beneficial “effective use” was directly proportional to the already existing resources available to those to whom the access was being provided. The old story about the pauper and the millionaire having equal opportunity to purchase a printing press as a means to promote their interests can be seen as holding equally here as in the 19th century.
Benjamin’s meticulously documented paper shows how the digitization and related digital access to land title records in Bangalore had the direct effect of shifting power and wealth to those with the financial resources and skills to use this information in self-interested ways. This is not to suggest that processes of computerization inevitably lead to such outcomes but rather to say that in the absence of efforts to equalize the playing field with respect to enabling opportunities for the use of newly available data, the end result may be increased social divides rather than reduced ones particularly with respect to the already poor and marginalized.
As well, this is not to argue against “open data” which in fact is a very significant advance and support to broad-based democratic action and empowerment but rather to argue that in the absence of specific efforts to ensure the widest possible availability of the pre-requisites for “effective use” the outcome of “open data” may be quite the opposite to that which is anticipated (and presumably desired) by its strongest proponents.”