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Data Democracy

Data Democracy - Essay

Written by: Lucinda Horrocks, Peter Dahlhaus and Jary Nemo

The term ‘big data’ has been used since the 1900s, and typically relates to very large sets of data collected through online or mobile (i.e. web-based) services. Data of this type is accumulated through many avenues, including the use of sensors, use of social-networking sites, digital images, online purchases and mobile phone signals, just to name a few. Although many of us are largely unaware of the types of data being collected during our daily interactions, it is likely that the changing global data landscape holds more implications for the wellbeing of ordinary people than is commonly recognised.

We live in an age where communities can interact with data in a way that was impossible to imagine just a few decades ago. Every day we are simultaneously contributors to and subjects of data collection, and every day an array of sensors, devices and instruments measure our interactions with the world around us.

Big data is undoubtedly useful in many contexts, and it has the potential to provide significant public benefit; however, ongoing controversies over the use of big data by government and private users shows that society has not yet accepted the ethical issues connected to big data. Issues including what is fair, who should be able to access data, whether the data is trustworthy, how individual rights to privacy are balanced against the public (or commercial) good, and what is the role of government, industry and the public in this changing information landscape are yet to be resolved.

In addition to the ethical issues surrounding the use of big data, shifts in government custodianship of public information means that data is becoming increasingly difficult for people to access and combine in useful and meaningful ways.

In the not too distant past, information relating to a wide range of fields including energy, agriculture, the environment and personal health was the domain of technical specialists. Experts were needed to collect, compile and analyse data; each stage of this process taking a considerable amount of time and effort. For example, information relating to national interest was historically collected, curated, stored and published by a number of government agencies: indeed, much of it still is – but there has been a significant shift in how we access this data as well as how ordinary citizens can interact with, use, respond to, and contribute to various types of publicly-available data.

The reasons behind this shift relate to changes in the management of government resources. Beginning in the 1980s, there was a world-wide move towards small government and neoliberalist policies such as the privatisation of public utilities and of functions previously conducted by the Public Service. The role of government departments in data collection, curation, storage and publication was substantially reduced, except where the role was a statutory one. In many cases, data repositories were moved to private providers where they became invisible to the public, or accessible only for a considerable fee.

Concurrently, the ‘New Digital Age’ or ‘Era of Big Data’ began, and with it, unprecedented opportunities for a deeper understanding and appreciation of global environments – both natural and anthropogenic. For example, in the last decade alone, the volume of digital data relating to multiple aspects of our planet [Earth] has grown exponentially, much of it having been collected by sensors.

In the new millennium, data is no longer reproduced in tables and distributed in weighty hardcopy tomes via expensive print production processes. With fast internet speeds, we can download data with the click of a button. Data visualisation and artificial intelligence (AI) tools can put decision-useful data directly in front of the end user, eliminating some of the need for specialist interpretation. However, history suggests that it is perilous to assume that technology can remove the need for professional experts and technicians to understand, analyse and unravel the data.

With the technology-enabled accessibility of data has come the open data movement – a new ideology based on democratic principles, which argues that information relevant to the public should be freely accessible to everyone to see and use. State and federal governments within Australian now operate with an ‘open by default’ data policy, meaning that non-sensitive government data is publicly available, with the Office of the National Data Commissioner overseeing this task. The Australian Bureau of Statistics makes all of its data freely available, and many other government departments are similarly committed.

Equally, many universities and research institutions around the world promote the ‘FAIR Guiding Principles’ for data: i.e. that data be findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable. In Australia, this has been the mission of the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC), who encourage academics to make their research data discoverable through Research Data Australia.

But just because government and academic research data is open, it doesn’t mean that the data you need to make decisions is always available. Changing governmental controls and the evolution of technology have led to a transitional information landscape, largely shifting data collection from the public sector to the private sector. More data about our planet are being collected outside of government agencies than within them. The collection of data in the private sector comprises both on- and off-site data, and includes information from the entire landscape – for example, from soil moisture and tractor performance to consumer purchases, routes of recreational cyclists to music downloads and everything in between. The result is an ever-growing plethora of chaotic data collections, most of which are invisible to decision makers in both the private and public sectors.

Sometimes the information is easy to access: sometimes it is not, and even where open data is provisioned, it is often in formats that are intelligible only to experts with the knowledge and technology to enable interpretation (i.e. a situation of data aristocracy). In some cases, custodians control or restrict the use of data (i.e. a situation of data dictatorship) or selectively distribute data to the ‘elites’ based on the perceived need of access (i.e. a data oligarchy). In other cases, data is freely distributed or shared in an ad-hoc fashion, with users creating their own data sets by combining whatever data they can access (i.e. data anarchy). Australia’s economic, environmental, social and cultural health could be vastly improved if everybody had equitable, timely access to all the data required to responsibly and transparently manage the decisions made in private and public arenas (i.e. a data democracy).

The impact of the technology revolution also extends beyond issues around data access. With the evolution of smart devices, which have the capacity to measure, record, monitor or track and upload data, ordinary citizens can actually contribute reliable big data as well. Indeed, the ‘power of the crowd’ to supply information that is publicly and privately significant cannot be underestimated. However, such volunteer monitoring also has potential problems, for example, fake data can be used to manipulate personal power and wealth or to disrupt the course of justice.

Further, public access to private data may, on occasion, be undesirable and inappropriate, having unintended consequences such as influencing property real estate values or a person’s access to finance or insurance. In these situations, private data should be de-identified before being shared, so that it is still useful to society as a whole, but not specifically identified to a source.

These competing requirements to balance individual rights to privacy while enabling equitable access to data for the public good is where exploration of democratic models of data sharing is needed. The origin of democracy as an ideology is usually attributed to Athenian society during the classical period of Greek civilisation (508–322 BC), when political decision-making by a small ruling elite was replaced by a relatively broad citizenship of ordinary adult male natives. Hence, the original term dēmokratia denoted the political power (kratos) of the mass of ordinary citizens[1] (dēmos), represented by a long-lasting and relatively stable system of government ‘by the people’ and ‘for the people’.

The principle of equality is central to the democratic ideology: a successful democracy requires the participation of members of that democratic system, even though that ideal may never be achievable. In the context of a data landscape in which general citizens now have unprecedented opportunities for timely and equitable access to data, we can think about data democracy in two ways. First, how the open data movement is empowering democracy and democratic principles through greater transparency; and second, how access to data should be fair and equitable so that all decision makers (private and public) are working with the most current and relevant data. Both these discourses are connected, and it is the latter notion that has been the focus of research work at the Centre for eResearch and Digital Innovation.

There are many benefits that can arise from a data democracy. In academia, the immediate beneficiaries are members of the research community who rely on data for evidence base. Ultimately though, it is the general public who could benefit most directly from data democracy. Data democracy puts power back in the hands of grass-roots community groups, who often struggle to make their case (or have it heard) when faced with powerful vested interests. In a data democracy, we could have an empowered society where the evidence (i.e. data and information) is available to everyone, creating a ‘level playing field’, where big data contributes towards the fundamental principles of a democratic society.

We invite you to join us as we work towards a world where big data exists and persists in a truly democratic environment: an era of data democracy.

[1] Citizens within this historical context excluded slaves, women, most foreigners and children. These individuals were not regarded as potential citizens in ancient Athens.





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