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The Transparency Tragedy of Open Data

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Ensuring credibility and trustworthiness in open data requires rigorous quality standards paired with easily accessible contextual information. Typically, large public data sets lack detailed information about the variables and is often riddled with errors. In 2014, through the Affordable Care Act’s Open Payments Initiative, the U.S. government released over 4.4 million medical payment records. These records describe over $3.5 billion payments made by device companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers to doctors. Some have criticized the release for lacking contextual information. In addition, one third of payment records submitted were omitted due to the possibility of identification, thus making this dataset incomplete.

Red Light Camera Data Disclosure

In addition to partial or incomplete data, the discretion of the agency can affect credibility and trustworthiness. Social, economic, political, and geographic circumstances all help shape and control policies and outcomes. These circumstances also shape discretionary open data decisions. For instance, transportation leaders in Staten Island, New York and Virginia Beach, Virginia have been criticized for withholding red light camera information from the public. Red light cameras are stationary cameras that photograph drivers that run red lights. Both cities were concluding initial pilot programs of five and three years, respectively. Before contracts were renewed and red light camera programs were extended, different entities called upon transportation officials to release camera data such as camera placement, number of violations at each intersection, and the number of accidents before and after installation in order to evaluate the efficacy of the program. It was argued that both cities were withholding data because the primary reason for installation of the cameras is to bring in millions of dollars in revenue annually; not to prevent accidents or increase safety. After all, the so-called ‘speed traps’ are raising funds for cities at an astounding rate and for very little city effort. In spring 2014, the City of Chicago shortened their yellow light time to 2.9 seconds and generated 77,000 tickets and $7.7 million in revenue.

Transparency Tragedy

A lack of disclosure when coupled with other issues such as incompleteness or poor metadata is an important problem with government data that is rarely discussed. In instances where parts of data are released or data are released without context, it appears that there can be a significant issue with credibility and trust. This can be regarded as the ‘transparency tragedy,’ that Michael Siebecker noted when discussing corporate transparency, “…it is not simply the lack of information that causes the tragedy. Instead, it can also be high volume and low quality of information that…render assessing the truth or falsity …increasingly difficult.”

The tragedy of untrustworthy transparency degrades the value of open data programs. Finding a happy medium that reflects true transparency and protects the public will be an enduring challenge for agencies to meet. For many agencies, creating a context for citizens that explains the data and how the data fit into a larger picture will be extremely important. Without this type of attention, the tragedy of the well-meaning transparency programs will too be varied, difficult, costly, and time-consuming.

 

Authors

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Kendra L. Smith

Kendra L. Smith is a doctoral candidate in the School of Community Resources and Development within the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University.

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