Tag Archives: Daniel Paré

Geothoughts Conversations 2: The Nature of Democracy in the Age of Open Data

Geothoughts Conversations 2 explores the nature of democracy in an age of open data.

Geothoughts Conversations 2 explores the nature of democracy in an age of open data.

By Drew Bush

The largest grant investigating two-way exchanges of locational information between citizens and their city governments, Geothink makes possible countless collaborations and discussions. This month, Geothoughts Conversations brings you a look at one such conversation that took place this past January on the wintry downtown campus of McGill University in Montreal, QC.

We sat down with Geothink head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, and Daniel Paré, associate professor in the Department of Communication and School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa, where he also serves as an associate director at the Institute for Science, Society, and Policy.

The topics: The nature of democracy and public participation and, later, how city platforms that utilize open data impact democratic processes and citizen engagement. Often hailed as a panacea for making government transparent and the political process more open and inclusive, Paré and Sieber discuss the inaccuracies in this narrative along with how open data has changed the roles of cities and citizens in today’s democracies.

To start us off Sieber dispels the idea that democracy itself requires public participation and discusses the wide spectrum of democractic systems that exist.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes.

If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

The Perils, Pitfalls, and Promise of Open Government – a Geothink Interview with Daniel Paré

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Geothink researcher Daniel Paré examines design-reality gaps in Canadian municipal open government platforms.

By Drew Bush

Earlier this month, Public Sector Digest’s first Open Cities Index ranked Canada’s municipalities according to their openness in supplying municipal data online. The index examined the number of data sets available in three areas of accountability (e.g. elections or budget data), innovation (e.g. traffic volume or service requests), and social policy (e.g. crime rates or health performance) for 34 Canadian cities. Find more details on this index in a previous Geothink.ca story.

But this type of examination represents only one aspect of a city’s openness. Geothink researchers have cautioned that one must consider each city’s goals in making datasets available (as well as tracking how they are used) when assessing the openness of a city. City platforms that utilize open data, sometimes referred to as e-government, are often hailed as a panacea for making government transparent and the political process more open and inclusive. Such pronouncements have accompanied the digitization of government records and data since the 1990s.

Geothink.ca recently sat down with one Geothink researcher to assess the validity of this claim, the downsides of e-government, and to discuss his research on the topic. Daniel Paré is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa where he also serves as an associate director at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy. His research focuses on the social, economic, political, and technical issues arising from innovations in information and communication technologies in developing and industrialized countries.

Geothink.ca: So tell us a bit about your current recent interests right now, and what you are most excited about in your work.

Paré: What I’m interested in looking at is the points of convergence and divergence between the rhetoric surrounding e-government in the late 1990s early 2000s with much of what we’re hearing about open government data and open data and the promises and perils and pitfalls and such, and sort of contrasting those two. In large part, it’s motivated by the fact that one of the things that I’ve been struck by just sort of informally is it just seems to me that there’s just tremendous parallels almost to the point of sort of repeating the same sort of mantras that we were repeating a little more than 10 years ago what with regards to e-government.

So I want to see the way that that holds. It plays into this whole idea in terms of the myths that are associated with technological change in terms of the liberating potential, the progressive potential, these sort of technological developments. So certainly in the area of open government data, the question becomes, or the issue is sort of, we hear lots of rhetoric about political progress and economic progress and such, and I basically want to suss those things out.

Geothink.ca: What are the differences between citizen-government and client-government interactions and what do you think the transformation toward open government is doing for both of those audiences?

Paré: Well, if we go back to e-government, at the time that e-government came on to the scene, part of the debate was between e-governance and e-government. And a lot of the early discourse and rhetoric around there was focused on the democratic potential. So citizens would be able to now access information much more easily— government information—become more engaged with their government on multiple levels, and, in order to simplify here, everything would become rosy. The underlying assumption being basically that with the ability to have access to information, citizens would seek out that information and would become more engaged in the political domain as a result of that. And almost sort of, in its more extreme cases, [it was] presented almost as sort of linear, ipso facto, done deal.

It was quickly identified, that in many ways e-government wasn’t about e-governance per se, certainly not in the political sense. It was about delivering services more effectively to citizens but in the role of clients essentially. Nothing wrong with that but that’s fundamentally different from political engagement as it’s normally understood. So, yes, it’s fantastic that, yes, I can file all my taxes online, or that we can get information, or that we can renew our licenses, or that we can have access to that information, but that’s more of a client service based implementation and usage than a sort of political domain.

If we jump forward now to the recent years in terms of open government and open data, we have a number of sorts of different discourses that are playing around. Part of it is to say that yes there’s open data and open government—bearing in mind that they’re separate things—that, you know, with access to this information, that fosters greater transparency and hopefully greater transparency [fosters] less corruption, more effective government, etc. The other aspect of that—complementary aspect—is sort of the economic angle saying well if people have access to government information they can harvest this information, they can come up with new sorts of innovations whether that be an app or some sort of other product that gets developed as a result of an analysis of the information that’s now available to them. And this then becomes a means or mechanism for fostering economic growth.

So you have those discourses or those narratives playing out. Now the issue, or one of the many issues, is the fact that realizing those benefits depends on a whole host of factors. And [governments] are dealing here with issues in terms of how do [they] organize and respond to demand, how do [they] organize and respond to supply, and how do [they] organize and respond and try to promote innovation. So you have those sorts of three things playing out. And so to come back to what I mentioned earlier about notions of myths around technologies…we tend to do away with, narratively, with the complexities and ambiguities that are associated with these processes. And so if we say, yes, you know, open data and open governance is a fantastic tool for promoting transparency and enhanced democracy, well possibly, yes, and possibly, no. We need to unravel that. It’s not a done deal. But the myth of that rhetoric is a punchy message. Likewise if we say, yes, well open data and open government is fantastic because it can spur economic growth and all sort of innovations. Fair enough. But again that covers up the challenges and complexities that are associated with that.

Geothink.ca: How does this relate to gaps you are seeing in how platforms are designed for e-government and their actual implementation in terms of how they are used?

Paré: In other work that I’ve done, we do a lot of stuff around the ideas of design-reality gaps. And so the notion there being that, you know, we may design a particular platform with a particular purpose in mind. And it has particular potential but then when we look at the implementation of a particular platform often times it has a host of unintended consequences. There is no guarantee that it will be used in a particular way. And so the opportunities and potentials that were meant to be reaped don’t materialize, right?

In some of those cases that might be linked to the platform itself and in others cases it might be linked to organizational factors. So we can think in terms of a government information system. If we are going to put in a new information system in the government bureaucracy, for example, the assumption is that it will enhance interdepartmental exchanges of communication and information. What that view overlooks is the turf battles between departments and agencies within government. The idea there, in this example, being that it’s not because we have the effective communication system in place that it will actually be used in an effective manner because there are other sociopolitical and cultural factors in that regard.

In the case of open data and open government, we tend to see for example a lot of claims about, sort of, hey, it’s great this information is online people are going to use it. But one of the early challenges that we encountered was, say, well those who can actually use it and do something with it are a very limited and niche segment of the population…The raw data—the raw information that’s there—is in such a form that people don’t know what to do with it or how to manipulate it. So on the one hand, yes, it’s open data the information is there, on the other hand, great, it’s there but what do I do with it if I don’t have the computer savvy or the statistical skills to deal with the information that’s there? So those are those sorts of gaps and complexities that I’m interested in.

Geothink.ca: How does your work relate to Geothink’s research goals and what do you think of the partnership?

Paré: Great question. Geothink relates to this for me in the sense of the open data, open government aspect of it. I had come to this project, Geothink, sort of as an outsider. For me, Geothink, very early on before I knew very much about it was oh, you know, you’re talking about geographical information systems. Which I’ve since learned we’re moving well beyond that. So for me, the issue in terms of Geothink and Geoweb, it fits into issues of open data, open government and clearly the geo part sort of entails a locational element in terms of locational types of data.

Tweet your ideas on this interview to Daniel Paré @DJ_Pare

If you have thoughts or questions about this interview, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothoughts 2: The Meaning of Open Government and the Role of Citizens with Daniel Paré

In our second Geothoughts podcast, we discuss the promise and peril of open government.

In our second Geothoughts podcast, we discuss the promise and peril of open government.

By Drew Bush

In our second edition of Geothoughts, we’re excited to bring you an interview with an expert in the issues that arise with innovations in information and communications technology. Daniel Paré is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at University of Ottawa. You can also subscribe to this podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this interview, we explore how Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 focuses too much on the technological side without emphasizing the need for open government across the entire Canadian government information environment. In particular, Paré discusses his views on open data and what the evolving role of the engaged citizen might be.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes. A transcript of this original audio podcast follows.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO PODCAST

This week we ask the opinion of an expert in the issues that arise with innovations in information and communication technologies about Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 and the role of open data. Daniel Paré is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at University of Ottawa.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

For Paré, open government has much less to do with the technological aspects of the portal being emphasized in the Action Plan than whether the idea has transcended the technological issues to include all aspects of governance.

“What we need to do—what people need to do—is clearly distinguish between when we are talking about open government are we talking about the data platform and the portal. Or are we talking about the idea of open government being government-wide in terms of the policies that are in place, in terms of the whole information environment, if I can call it that, that includes the platform but that transcends it?”

If implemented with the whole information environment in mind, he argues, the idea of open government has the potential to democratize and make transparent Canada’s government. However, such a step requires more than data being made available online.

“One of the weaknesses with that point is that you know when you look at the information available online, one of the things you increasingly see is that it’s actually quite difficult for the average individual like you or me to actually do something with those datasets unless we have some pretty advanced understandings of computers and standards and how to do stuff with that.”

A Geothink researcher, Paré specializes in social, economic, political and technical issues arising from innovations in information and communication technologies (ICTs) in developing and industrialized countries. In particular, his research examines e-commerce, Internet governance, information and communication policy, e-government, and knowledge networks.

It’s for this reason that he believes Canada’s Action Plan for Open Government 2.0 might have a very nice technological and economic agenda but still miss on making the government transparent if a flawed access to information system is left in place legislatively. Some of his concerns echo those expressed by Tracey Lauriault in previous Geothink.ca stories.

“Open government is a wonderful narrative contract and you can have a wonderful discourse about that in terms of yes, you know, we’re open so were more transparent, we’re more democratic. It’s all a great thing. But the issue comes down to how that’s really manifest and how that’s really open. How that’s really sort of implemented. And, so, what my concerns is that when we talk about open government, is that it does tend to focus our attention, I think, too narrowly on things like the open government portal or the technological side.”

As for the emphasis on technological innovation and economic gain in much of the Action Plan, Paré believes it juxtaposes the need to enhance democratization and citizen engagement. A better question, he asks, is if government should see citizens as their clients or as simply requiring information to “facilitate, improve, enhance and participate in the democratic process.

This story originally reported by Prajakta Dhopade, many thanks to her.”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]

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If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geoweb and Open Data in Canada: Mapping the Terrain

There is much hope expressed about the cultural, economic, political and social opportunities afforded by Geoweb and open data initiatives. Much of the fanfare focuses on how best to harness the power of information and communication technologies in order to beget the economic, political, and socio-cultural benefits that supposedly will follow. Such a view gives rise to two concerns. First, it places technology as the primary agent, or driver, of change. Second, it advances a form of historical amnesia about expectations for the democratic, economic, political, and social virtues of previous communication technologies, from electrification, through telegraph, radio, television, and the Internet, to mobile phones (see, Marvin 1990; Mattelart 1996; Mosco 2004; Standage 1998).

Geoweb and open data initiatives may enhance efficiencies, bring about greater transparency and foster enhanced levels of civic engagement. But this does not capture all the complexity. Such initiatives, and the technologies that enable them, are inherently political and their politics are directly impacted by the contexts within which stakeholder decisions are made about such things as the platforms to employ and the policies to implement. A cursory examination of the history of technology teaches us that, if we are to succeed in unraveling the myths about the supposed progressive and emancipatory powers of Geoweb and open data initiatives we need to be much more precise than all too frequently is advanced in mainstream accounts. Geoweb and open data initiatives operate within specific socio-economic and socio-cultural contexts.

We are collaborating with a graduate student from the University of Ottawa and colleagues from the Faculty of Information (iSchool) at the University of Toronto. The objective of
our project is to begin “mapping” the complex soci-political and economic terrain within which policy decisions about open data are made at federal, provincial and municipal levels. In these early stages the project has two principal objectives: identify key stakeholders (government, industry, civil society) in open data in Canada at federal, provincial and municipal levels; and create an electronic depository of policy documents, company reports, and NGO reports relating to open data in Canada.

Admin note: An underlying question at Geothink is whether there is there anything new with these geographically based Web 2.0 technologies? And do we believe that technology will rescue us from long-standing and difficult to realize processes like civic participation? At the same time, the technology appears new because it allows non-experts to share information—for us, geographically tagged information—and to contribute from anywhere, at anytime and do so anonymously. With the open data movement, government has taken unprecedented steps to release the raw data undergirding decision-making. Geothink will help us and help local governments to understand if there’s anything new going on.

If you have thoughts on this, please email Daniel Paré, dpar2@uOttawa.ca, and Leslie Shade, leslie.shade@utoronto.ca.