We’ve followed with enthusiasm the new global focus on open government. Barack Obama launched the Open Government Partnership in New York in September, an international initiative which aims to highlight the importance of public information and transparency in democratic governance. Among the countries who have applied to join the partnership include Ukraine, Romania and Moldova – three countries where we are working on library development programs.
Our colleague Anna Taranenko from the Bibliomist program in Ukraine recently attended the Open Government Data camp in Warsaw, where she networked with activists from around the world on the issues and challenges surrounding open government. At the camp, she encountered amazing people from around the world working to help governments become more transparent and engage more with citizens. She noted some common challenges, however, especially in developing countries. Uptake is an issue. Despite the resources being put into public data and websites that give unprecedented visibility to government spending and statistics, there’s some disappointment and confusion about how to get people beyond the few activists making use of the new tools.
This matches what we’ve been noticing about much of the discussion around open government. It focuses on technology, on tools, and on data. Governments often see releasing public data as the final step, or hackathons and tech camps as a solution for the question of how information is used. There’s no questions all these pieces have their place, but there’s a gap in the discussion. What about access? If we’re talking about developing countries, where most people don’t have their own computers or smartphones, how are they being included in these efforts?
We’re thinking about how libraries belong in this discussion. In countries with public library systems, institutions dedicated to the idea of access to information already exist. With the right technology and training, we’ve seen how libraries can become community centers where those otherwise excluded can become aware of, access, and learn how to use the information that’s available. They get a chance to participate in development process that they’ve never had before. If you’re talking about open government, you can’t just be talking about the hackers and the data. You have to be talking about access.