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This weekend, I attended the Alberta Open Data Summit. It was very interesting to hear from libraries working with open data, but also to hear from all the “policy wonks” about their vision of how Open Data can support municipal policies around inclusion, social welfare, etc. The keynote was be Jean-Noé Landry, Executive Director of Open North, who discussed some of the initiatives that have grown out of the Open Data movement in Montreal. One of the things he talked about was indicators of maturity within the Open Data movement. Troy Pavlek has given a good summary of the conference and has a photo of Landry’s slide in his blog post. The main indicators from Landry’s point of view are:

  • From apps to systemic change
  • From data visualization to interactive online tools
  • From hackathons to sustained engagement processes
  • From demand to context specific data user approaches
  • From champions to mindset shift + capacity building
  • From open data portals to personalized dashboards
  • From local policies to global frameworks

All of this is well and good, however, something bothered me with the state of the discourse throughout the conference. I tweeted at the time:

I’ve been thinking more about this since the conference, and there are two things I’d like to tease out here. One is that another indicator of maturity within the field is precisely the problematization of the positivist, technocratic view of open data; and the other is the question of science, as it’s understood within the Marxist tradition.

The dominant narrative in the Open Data movement seems to be that social problems (e.g. government accountability, homelessness, etc) have technological solutions.

Freely available for anyone to access, use and re-use, these data bring immense transformation to the table: from better-informed people, through more transparent governments to safer and highly-efficient living environments. Connecivity, Open Data, and a Bag of Chips

Improved access to data will bring substantial benefits to the third sector, and so to society. Better access for more impact: what open data ca offer the third sector

Access to (open) data will help prevent duplication, uncover funding gaps, reduce the research burden for planning a new project and significantly improve how donors target their aid. Open Data and Agricultural Aid: The Next Step in Tackling Hunger

This kind of technocratic positivism reminds me of the state of musicology before the publication of Joseph Kerman’s Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology (1985). Prior to this, music was considered autonomous, above and apart from social, economic, political, and even cultural determinations. Kerman’s book was part of a movement towards situating musical culture within a social framework, that saw music as part of other social trends, pressures, determinations, etc. Needless to say “traditional” musicologists saw this “injection” of worldliness, of critique, as an affront to the pure, scientific positivism of their worldview. I would argue that what the Open Data movement requires now is just such an injection of (that unpopular word) theory. Without it, it risks being coopted into the neoliberal structures of metrics, analysis, big data, surveillance, and the replication of traditional (white, male, middle class) hierarchies of social control. The adoption of open data policies by capitalist governments cannot and will not automatically address social problems, exploitation, poverty, homelessness, etc. To argue that all that is required for governments to become accountable and progressive is the availability of data implies that social problems are merely failures in knowledge, and ignores the facts of structural inequality, relationships of power and privilege, and class struggle within capitalist society.

This question of knowledge raises its head everywhere. The idea that injustice, inequality, and oppression can be overcome simply by improving knowledge ignores both the question of power (and how it is maintained) as well as ideology and ideological reproduction. At bottom is an Enlightenment assumption that knowledge is perfectable and perfect knowledge leads to perfect societies - an idealism that is at odds with the Marxist understanding of the material world.

The question of the distinction between science (true knowledge) and ideology (false knowledge) has long been of interest to Marxist theorists (notably in the work of Louis Althusser). For Georg Lukacs, writing in the 1920s, the Marxist theory of knowledge was qualitatively different from the theory of knowledge tacitly assumed by bourgeois science. In What is Orthodox Marxism? he writes that

The methodology of the natural sciences… rejects the idea of contradiction and antagonism in its subject matter. If… contradictions do spring up between particular theories, this only proves that our knowledge is as yet imperfect. Contradictions between theories show that these theories have reached their natural limits; they must therefore be transformed and subsumed under even wider theories in which the contradictions finally disappear. (10)

A classic example of this is the subsumption of Newtonian physics under Relativistic physics, but this process is well-documented in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). For Marxists, however, Lukacs goes on,

in the case of social reality these contradictions are not a sign of the imperfect understanding of reality; on the contrary, they belong to the nature of reality itself and to the nature of capitalism. When the totality is known they will not be transcended and cease to be contradictions. Quite the reverse. They will be seen to be necessary contradictions arising out of the antagonisms of this system of production. When theory (as the knowledge of the whole) opens up the way to resolving these contradictions it does so by revealing the real tendencies of social evolution. For these are destined to effect a real resolution of the contradictions that have emerged in the course of history. (10-11)

At issue with the positivist approach to Open Data is the suggestion that open data, and therefore improved knowledge, is all that is required to overcome the contradictions and oppressive structures of society. And the risk with this kind of thinking is that the opening up of data can become an end in itself; the open data movement might then stop once it has accomplished everything on the right hand side of Landry’s list (personalized dashboards, for example) without going further, using Open Data to expose the real inequalities, power dynamics, and oppressions of society, “and by opposing, end them”.

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Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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