The Myth of the Open Data Mob: a response to Mike Ananny

I recently discovered that Mike Ananny wrote this response to a piece I initially posted here and then on The Mark titled Let Us Audit Parliament’s Books. I encourage you to read both my piece and Ananny’s thoughtful response. And, in the spirit of dialogue, I have two thoughts in response.

First, Ananny misrepresents the thrust of my argument. He suggests that I only want crowds and that my goal is to replace public institutions with amorphous “crowds.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, I say, at the end of the article, that the Auditor General should do her own audit – using the same information that is available to everyone. I’m not in favour of replacing institutions with crowds, or democracy with populism. What I am in favour of is ensuring their are checks on institutions.

Second, Ananny creates a straw man of my arguments painting the picture of a single monolithic crowd. These misrepresentation can be found in lines such as this from his piece:

It’s okay that we do this. But in the kind of crowd-sourced audit Eaves describes, who are the “others” that we trust to discover on our behalf and teach us what they learn? At least we know who the auditor general is and how – cumbersome as it might be – she and the government can be replaced.

This is certainly not what I sought to describe nor is what I think I did, but as an author I share responsibility in being clear.

Do I believe there will be no single amorphous crowd? No. I believe there will be the public much like today. And it will discern the debate in the same way it currently does. What does this mean? I suspect that if the expensess were public there might be numerous audits, and that those will find it easiest to earn the public’s trust will be those conducted by “others” who first and foremost declare who they are. The most obvious candidate for this would be the Globe and Mail. (Wouldn’t it be nice if they had access to MP expenses)? Of course, the Globe may not have the resources to go through every line of every MP’s expenses so they may ask people to flag lines that seem to be of particular importance. This is, of course, how  The Guardian newspaper in the UK exposed some of the most problematic expenses in their MP expense scandal. In short, this isn’t a single faceless mob, this is about allowing numerous people, from public institutions to the media to self interested private citizens. Some will self-organize, others will not. But there will be a diversity of perspectives.

Second, and more importantly, is that these competing audits would be good for democracy and for public institutions. I completely agree with Ananny’s quote from Bentham. A perfectly knowledgeable public is a myth. Yes, most of us, on most issues, knowingly or not, do delegate responsibility for forming our beliefs to others. The challenge is, to whom to delegate? Ananny seems confident he knows exactly who it should be (an AG who, actually, only has the power to shame). He wants us to place our faith in a crowd of one – the AG – who no one gets to choose and who herself has no oversight.  I’m interested in a different outcome. We live in a world where it is easier to allow more than one resource to which citizens can delegate their trust. More importantly, by sharing the expenses different parties can assess how others conduct their audit – biases, different assumptions, flaws and more clear comparisons – in short a public debate, could take place. Giving everyone access to MP expenses will, admittedly, be messy, but then so is democracy. The point is you either believe in public debate or you don’t.

Encouragingly, this is ultimately what Ananny seems to want as well, as he states:

I know we don’t have to choose between crowds or experts – I want both – but if it’s a question of emphasis, I’d much rather be the constituent of an AG who can be legally reprimanded and dramatically fired than an unwilling patron of a crowd that may or may not know what it’s doing.

I want both as well. I’d also love to see a supportive infrastructure that helps people contribute to audits. Indeed, this was the thrust of my June 10th piece Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data. But you don’t create that infrastructure by not sharing the the accounts openly. As my libraries piece argues, sharing is a precondition to developing such an infrastructure.

So if, as suggested, this is a question of emphasis, why did Ananny choose to use my piece as a launchpad for his own? We seem to be on the same page (we both appear to want to improve public institutions and public debates). I think the ultimate reason lies in this last point. Ananny’s examples refer to crowds or institutions that are deemed expert by somebody. But the public’s trust in an institution or resource or even a crowd isn’t granted or ordained, it is earned. Ananny’s solutions keep returning to the notion that we need to ordain trust and delegate whereas mine is that we need to enable emergent systems so that many actors can attempt to earn trust and we can debate. This is why I agree that the AG’s office should, as he suggests, provide a program to help people learn how to do audits. But I also I think society will be best served when a diversity (of particularly emergent) approaches are possible, perhaps involving actors like accounting firms and universities. This would allow others to be a check on the AG which will enhance, not destroy confidence. But again, this is only possible if we all have access to the information.

And that ultimately is my point. Access to information is a precondition that enables us to engage in better debates, foster systems that support alternative perspectives and also provides a check on public institutions. It is these checks and debate, not blind delegation, that will improve confidence.

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