Cape Town has become the first city in South Africa to introduce an open data policy, but critics say that it has “flaws” that could result in it having the opposite effect to what is intended.
In terms of the new policy a committee, which will only meet quarterly, will be established to decide on requests for data from the city. But the policy does not include clear guidelines for what data will be made available, leaving it up to the committee to decide at the “implementation stage”.
Adi Eyal, who heads up the not-for-profit Code for South Africa, which advocates for open data, says of this committee: “If you are of the cynical persuasion, you might even call it a censorship committee”.
Nic Dawes, the former editor of the Mail & Guardian and now chief editorial and content officer for India’s Hindustan Times, took to Twitter to comment on the new policy, tweeting, “Open data means you default to open, and close for specified cases, not the other way around.”
In a press release announcing the approval of the new policy, councillor Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for corporate services, said the new policy was part of Cape Town’s “commitment to ensuring transparent, accountable and accessible government”.
“In having done so, the City of Cape Town is embracing the use of open data to promote economic growth, development and inclusion,” Limberg said.
All parties, with the exception of the ANC, voted in favour of the policy when it came before the council last week.
By adopting an open data policy Cape Town is following the lead of other cities around the world that see the opening of their data as a way to spark a new innovation-driven economy and create employment.
In May last year President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order making US government data more accessible to the public and to entrepreneurs and others as a way to fuel innovation and economic growth.
In terms of Obama’s order all newly-generated government data was required to be made available in open, machine-readable formats, greatly enhancing their accessibility and usefulness.
Some critics, while welcoming Cape Town new policy as a “step forward” and a “good start”, say it is flawed and could have the opposite effect to what is intended and might even slow down the release of council data.
“Open data is becoming a very popular discussion point for government and citizens, says Gabriella Razzano, the head of legal research at the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) in Cape Town.
“(But) sadly, Cape Town Open Data Policy represents, in truth, the problem of political actions failing to address real needs.”
Her major concern, she says, is that the vetting committee will “… in practice create a major funnel through which little data would flow”.
She also found it “strange” that the City dismissed many of the concerns raised by submissions as not being relevant “to the policy itself”, but rather a concern for implementation “given that policy is meant to provide guidance for officials in order to ensure rational actions are taken.
“Yet the policy fails to provide much real guidance on the core principles of open data, such as format types, accessibility, or even the functional requirements for a fully accessible and citizen-friendly portal. Principles of openness and transparency from a rights perspective barely feature, and practical guidance as how best to make data open i.e. how to make it useable, shareable and distributable, is just totally omitted,” she says.
Some of her concerns were echoed Eyal, who wrote in a critique of the policy: “As an open data activist, I should be singing from the rooftops. But it’s not quite time to celebrate. Unfortunately, the policy is flawed, possibly fatally so.”
The establishment of the vetting committee is a “major Achilles’ heel”, he says. “This committee will have veto rights, rejecting any requests that may pose ‘unanticipated risks’ to the City,” he says, and “may even slow down the release of data.
“Whereas now, I might be able to get access to a spreadsheet by simply making a phone call and receiving the data in my email, my request may now have to be sent to the committee for approval.
“While there are legitimate reasons to protect private data like ID numbers and individuals’ names, “the policy does not articulate what sorts of data might be considered unacceptable, nor provide a satisfactory mechanism for appealing rejections.”
Raymond Joseph (@rayjoe) is journalist, trainer, fixer of news rooms, data journ convert.
Note: This story has been edited to replace a copy of the draft policy with the final policy that was passed by the council.
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