Smoke and mirrors - does open data consensus stand up to scrutiny

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By Alison Tilley

Open data is like motherhood and apple pie. Everybody thinks it’s a good idea. I am suspicious when everyone is in favour of something. Especially when they have conflicting views of how the world works, there is something going on there which needs consideration.

So when governments, and business, and social justice advocates are all in favour of open data, what is going on? Well, allegedly, a revolution. The information that exists in the world is growing exponentially, and with it the possibilities of profound change. We all want change, we say – to change is to improve, and to perfect is to change often.

But what do we all want? Are our goals the same? If they are, that seems so unlikely as to be incredible. Business usually argues for stability. You can make money in any situation, they say, provided you can predict what will happen. Yet here business is apparently in favour of big data, the internet of things, disruption. Governments don’t generally want change. They want voters to vote for them, and tweak systems to try and get votes, but the only way governments change profoundly is when they are overthrown, and even then the new state often looks strangely like the old. And yet many seem to be in  the same corner as social justice advocates, arguing for open data.

Classical neo liberals thinks open data delivers information symmetry, and thus better functioning markets. A function of the explosion in computer processing power is the information that is available and that we think we can see patterns in. That’s money right there – information asymmetry, which companies can exploit. So open data gives us both symmetry and asymmetry?

If it gives us symmetry, then that theoretically gives us more equal power. That is the classical ‘information is power’ argument. If I know what you know, we are equal in that respect, and if you are the state and I am a citizen then I am more powerful than I was, and I can hold you accountable. Or so the theory goes. So good governance advocates are in favor of open data. Governments are also in favour of open data, because they say it helps deliver better services for less money.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, they say, and it may be indeed that we are all in favor of open data.  But perhaps before we conclude that too quickly, let us consider a little more closely.

We probably agree on a definition of open data.

The question of what open data delivers is perhaps something we do not agree on. That is because what open data delivers in theory is quite different to what it delivers in practice. What data is open to whom? Open data evangelists would say, default open – that is information is made automatically available, as a matter of law, policy and practice, as open data. Only very limited categories of information are not available.

Well yes, but whose information? Government’s? Or big business? Does Google have to make its data open by default? Or Apple? No, wait, says business. Trade secrets, copyright, research information, that is our business model. We can’t operate if we don’t keep secrets.

Government information? Well yes, says government. But not national security data, or data which relates to international relations, or tax or, even in the case of the Chinese, budgets. Those should not be open data. We need those secrets.

Even data evangelists are a bit more wary of open data now. In a post Snowden era, the notion of a state which can collect data on you anywhere at any time, and apparently does, is suddenly not so attractive. So there are the privacy concerns, and the issues around confidentiality. Ontario’s privacy commissioner discovered last year that the mental-health information of some Canadians is accessible to the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

Some Ontario police services routinely uploaded attempted suicide calls to the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC), to which U.S. border guards and the FBI have access. Not so keen on open data now, are we? We all need secrets.

So the devil is in the detail. My open data is your classified data – your private data is my business model. So, like applehood and mother pie, we agree. Until we get down to what is available to who and when.

Release crime data, by police station, every month, says the Khayelitsha Commission of Enquiry in Cape Town, in South Africa. That will help build trust in the police. Once a year, says the South African Police Service, and never at police station level, only in aggregated form. Otherwise criminals will use the information for intelligence purposes. Yes, that is really their argument.

We want land audits of who owns what land, say land activists. No, says the state – we aren’t going to give you the information that would trigger land invasions. Information about the nuclear power framework agreements South Africa has entered into with Russia? Hell, no, says the Department of Energy. The release of the framework agreement would compromise “sensitive negotiations”. The framework agreement was found to be available in Russian on a web. So whose sensitivities are we compromising?

So what can you have? The budget, says the government. What about the bids put in by different departments to Treasury, so you can compare what a department asked for, and what was allocated? Well, no. Not that.

Can I have the right to be forgotten? Can I require that search engines delete my data? Yes, in some jurisdictions. In others, that’s a violation of the right to a free press, and freedom of speech.

Suddenly the practice as to who will give what to whom and when looks very different from the words that we all agree on. That does not begin to deal with the questions of what we understand all this data to mean in the first place.

The phrase, ‘there is no such thing as raw data, but only cooked data’, is apposite. You can, as Code4SA did, map all the marriages in South Africa, and find some very interesting patterns. You could potentially even draw legislative, policy, business and advocacy decisions from that. But that’s only marriages between men and women, registered, and conducted by a marriage officer. No civil unions, customary marriages, domestic partnerships, Muslim marriages, Hindu marriages, or a myriad of other relationships that don’t tick that box. So we have a fundamental agreement about what constitutes a marriage? Clearly not. So when we have data that tells us about marriage, we must understand that it ‘cooked’ data, not ‘raw’ data. It assumes a range of parameters about what marriage is, which are not parameters that are even legally sound. Let alone culturally agreed.

So what does open data really mean? Whose data? When? How? These are some of the issues that we need to get to grips with if we are to do more than agree on generalities. A false consensus may give an appearance of accord, but a false accord is not a basis for a revolution.

OGP Midterm Self Assessment

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The Department of Public Services and Administration have kindly distributed their draft mid-term self assessment report for comment. The assessment seeks to reflect on progress made in relation to the South African government's commitments. The Department have noted their interest in receiving feedback on the draft assessment.

Comments can be distributed directly to the Department of Public Services and Administration's Mabaeng Dlamini at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. as soon as possible.

Background on the Open Government Partnership
The Open Government Partnership (OGP) is a global effort for improving governance. South Africa was a founding member of the OGP, joining the partnership in 2011. It is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. In the spirit of multi-stakeholder collaboration, OGP is overseen by a steering committee of governments and civil society organisations. You can visit their website, with access to all the main resources, here.



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 ODAC is proud to announce the launch of our latest piece of extensive research on the lived experience of South African whistleblowers, "Heroes Under Fire".

Whistleblowers in South Africa are under threat as never before. A deepening culture of impunity and lack of accountability is making it harder for them to expose wrongdoing. When we consider the actual experiences of citizens who blow the whistle in South Africa, it becomes clear that the ambitious constitutional principles that promote transparency are not enough to create a safe environment that can fully foster corruption fighting. Whistleblowers in South Africa make decisions to blow the whistle based on their strong desire for justice, but because of these acts become isolated and vulnerable. While their stories should be read and considered as a way of acknowledging these often silenced voices, as an organisation, the Open Democracy Advice Centre has also been able to use these narratives to identify the key policy and legislative changes necessary to make the environment better for them.
Because of these stories ODAC is calling for dramatic and innovative changes to the legislative environment to encourage whistleblowers, and protect them more effectively. These recommendations come at an important time, as proposed amendments to the Protected Disclosures Act will be presented to Parliament during 2015.

Download a pdf version of the research here or contact ODAC about access to a hard copy version.

Minister of State Security's statement on cellular phone signal jamming in parliament

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18 FEBRUARY 2015

1. We wish to state that there was no executive or political decision to interfere with the free flow of information and constitutional obligations on transparency and openness during the State of the Address (SONA). The Minister responsible for State Security was also taken aback.

2. The mandate of the Security Cluster for the State of the Nation Address is to ensure the proper coordination of security planning of the event. This work is done through an operational structure called the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) as a standard protocol for any major event in the Republic of South Africa. The NATJOINTS consist of Security Cluster Departments (who are permanent members) and other relevant Departments participate on an ad hoc basis depending on the nature of the event.

3.The security details and preparations are informed by the level of the security risk and threat assessment. The SONA event was rated major based on intelligence reported prior to the event which was unprecedented. Furthermore, given the magnitude of the event and the fact that all spheres of government, the three arms of the State, international invited guests, two former Heads of State and the general public were present, maximum security had to be effected.  

4. The State Security Agency (SSA) was responsible for the threat and risk assessment and supporting the SANDF efforts to enforce the airspace security.   The airspace security plan was also properly approved to supply security measures against low speed, low energy threats as well as the drones with minimal disruption to commercial aviation and related aspects.

5. Restricted Airspace around Parliament has been promulgated. An advisory notice to airmen (NOTAM A0445/15 & NOTAM C0331/15) was promulgated as well as temporary restricted airspace (AIRAC AIP Supplement S008/15).

6. The NATJOINTS Media Statement of the 11 February 2015 clearly indicated that “currently there is no fly zone over parliament and the areas surrounding it and this restriction will apply on the day of the event”.  “All aircrafts, aerodrones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) will not be allowed in this restricted airspace.”

7. This airspace security plan was executed with precision especially when the Deputy President and President were in transit until the time of taking of salute at the doorsteps of the parliament, estimated between 18:35-19:00.  However the application of this counter threat measure was prolonged beyond the normal operational requirements.

8. The signal disruption was caused by an operational error by the member on duty.  The operator failed to properly terminate the device and this impacted on proper access to some users of mobile phones. A departmental investigation is currently underway with a possibility of disciplinary action for those responsible for this operational failure.

9. The Department of State Security regrets the unintentional disruption of signal in certain parts of the parliamentary chambers.

10. It is within the mandate of the SSA to deploy these measures at various major events, rallies, occasions and events where the President who is the Head of State and Government including the Deputy President are in attendance and where threats and risk assessments justify such measures.

11. The deployment of these counter intelligence measures where the Head of State and Government attends is in line with international risks assessment and crisis management procedures.

12. In future the Department of State Security will ensure that its members in discharging their operational tasks handle their operations more diligently.

13. This operation was never intended to frustrate the parliamentarians, the media and anyone who attended parliament and the result of it not being switched off properly is highly regretted.


Media Enquiries: Mr. Brian Dube-0824183398