Lackadaisical Media Coverage of Open Government Partnership Launch

The Open Government Partnership Initiative was officially launched this week in New York. Originally conceived by President Obama to promote government transparency globally, the meeting was co-chaired by the US President and Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil and was attended by the other founding heads of state from Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the UK.

This international initiative aims at securing concrete action plans from governments across the globe to promote transparency, expose corruption, increase citizen participation, and leverage web 2.0 technologies to make government more efficient, responsive, and accountable.

I’d like to make two points.

First, this event was very important. The meeting of 8 heads of state committed to information access, transparency, accountability and citizen participation is giant milestone in political history, never mind the history of open government. Additionally, another 40 countries (including Canada) have committed to joining the Open Government Partnership.

Cabinet Minister Francis Maude (the UK representative) expressed the importance of the Open Government Partnership (with a bit of humour thrown in): “It is a law of politics that all oppositions are passionately in favour of transparency. In office governments tend to favour transparency and openness in their first 12 months when what they are exposing are their predecessor’s errors. After that, it is altogether less comfortable. There is nothing cozy, fluffy or soft about transparency. It’s hard-edged. It needs to be rigorous. It gets governments out of their comfort zone. It enables the citizen to hold the government to account. Not just every few years at election time, but week by week and month by month. And in embracing transparency, we volunteer to having our feet held to the fire on a daily basis. Today is a pivotal moment.” (Listen to the rest of Minister Maude’s address at 46:38 in the video at the end of post).

Second point I’d like to make is that this event was not well covered in the U.S./International media. For example, I did a search on “Open Government Partnership” with the news source being the New York Times over the last couple of days and came up with a big goose egg …

When I did the same thing for CNN, two pieces of journalism appeared. One on a botched group photo because President Obama had obscured the face of a person to his right when he raised his hand in a wave. The second was a behind the scenes look at the travel escapades of journalists following the President on the day of the meeting. Really, the President of the US and 8 world leaders meet on an initiative that will change the face of the world and nothing of substance about the meeting in the two of the largest media sources in the world? Weird.

Good media coverage or not the Open Government Partnership launch was a great day for global democracy, government transparency and citizen participation, a movement I fully expect to continue growing in the years to come. As Minister Francis Maude said in his address, “The shutters are being thrown back and the light is flooding in. And today we are at an inflection point. Today the demand for openness is unstoppable.”

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20,000 Year History of Open Data

We tend to think about open data as a relatively new phenomenon, but really it’s been around for thousands of years. Inspired by a post by Stephan Wolfram outlining the history of systematic data and computable knowledge, I’ve decided highlight some ancient historical milestones of open data.

For at least 20,000 years people have been tallying notches on bones, wood and stone. Presumably, Stone Age people were counting the number of antelope in a herd and number of fish caught, and the data would often be shared (open data) between individuals and/or between tribes for personal services and trade.

Ishango bones - notched
From over 17,000 years ago we have the Lascaux cave paintings. These incredible works of art tell us stories about the hunting and survival of our ancestors. While not exactly machine readable, these paintings contain pictographic data about horses, stags, cattle, and bison of the prehistoric age. They paint for us a picture of the hearts and minds of the Palaeolithic people.

Dark horse Hieroglyphics dating back to 3,200 BCE are examples of open data. Hieroglyphic data would be seen in fields, schools, and on public structures, while some hieroglyphics were hidden in the tombs or temples of pharaohs. Among other subjects, the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics to communicate information about religion and government. Hieroglyphics were used to keep important records of yearly tax collection and grain and cattle production. The open hieroglyphics of the pharaohs’ scribes are some of the first examples of open government data.

Stonehenge, dating back to 2950 BCE, is another open data monument in our history. The stones were placed to mark sunrise at the midsummer solstice, sunset at the midwinter solstice, and likely had other astronomical significance.

For many years the Inukshuk was a form of open data used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The Inukshuk data told Inuit travellers that they were on the right path by providing a waypoint or navigation or directional aid. They also may have indicated migration routes or places where hunting and fishing were plentiful.

There are many more examples in our ancient and modern history of open data, from Babylonian stone boundary markers that record the ownership of land to modern data about politician’s travel expenditures. If you have any examples of open data in our near or ancient history you’d like to share, please feel free to leave a comment below.