Page last updated at 08:47 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Web inventor calls for government data transparency

By Chris Vallance
BBC News

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee was hired to work on the project in June 2009

Countries should be judged on their willingness to open up public data to their citizens, the inventor of the world wide web has told the BBC.

He said "openness of data and the neutrality of the network" should be considered as important as free speech.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is an advisor to a UK project - data.gov.uk - that offers reams of previously hidden public sector data for anyone to use.

Open data could now be considered a basic right of citizens, he added.

"I think obviously there are more fundamental ones, but within a democratic society if the democracy is going to work you have to have an informed electorate," he told the BBC.

He said this was of particular importance for developing countries.

"The openness of governments is one of the things which makes investors decide whether to invest," he said.

"When you make the government open, when they can see what's happening, they're much more likely to bring their money and companies into your country."

'India's gift'

Many groups around the world are now using open public data to hold public bodies to account.

In Brazil a website that tracks the published wealth of politicians has created many political casualties.

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Journalist Fernando Rodrigues built the online database Politicos do Brasil which contains details of the campaign finances of 400,000 politicians.

The site was started in 2000, but as the information becomes more complete, its power increases.

He told the BBC that he believed it had contributed to the removal from office of hundreds of politicians after the 2008 local elections.

"Only six months after the election, 343 mayors and legislators had already lost their jobs because so much data was available about them and it became easy to identify wrongdoings during the electoral process," he said.

Other countries are less forthcoming with publication of data, but allow their citizens to access it in other ways.

In India, for example, the 2005 Right to Information Act has been met with great enthusiasm. So far, around two million requests for information have been made.

Yamini Aiyar, director of the accountability initiative at the country's Centre for Policy Research, said that the Indian public have a strong sense of ownership about the act.

MKSS paints results on walls in Rajasthan
Lack of web access is not a brake on government transparency."

"People are monitoring the act, looking out for it constantly, questioning the government," he told the BBC.

"That kind of public ownership is the biggest lesson I think India can give to the world."

Even lack of internet access is not a barrier for some determined groups.

Indian freedom of information group MKSS, based in Rajasthan, monitors government payments to rural workers. The group has been a major force pushing for greater openness in government in India.

It collates the information, which may have originally been stored digitally, and then go into villages and paint the results on walls.

"The wall presents a kind of web wall because anyone can come and read that information," said Nikhil Dey of the group.

'Just beginning'

In both India and Brazil campaigners would like to see more government data proactively published.

But even where data is unavailable, people are proving that the internet can be used to hold people to account.

I think it's incumbent on those who believe in a positive and healthy society to get off their bums and produce fantastic services that are positive
Tom Loosemore

Lacking detailed information on politicians' incomes, campaigners in Vietnam have started publishing pictures of legislators homes online. The idea is that the size of a home gives an indication of the wealth of a politician.

"It's a way to promote transparency," said Duy Hoang of Viet Tan (Vietnamese Reform Party).

But while there is clearly a demand for open government worldwide, some in the UK and US warn that publishing public data alone is not a panacea.

"There's a danger in assuming that all we need are these ever increasing volumes of information," said Nathaniel Heller of non-profit group Global Integrity, which monitors corruption trends worldwide.

"Personally, I think it needs to be matched with other reforms."

Tom Loosemore, head of 4iP, which funds many of the new websites that make use of the UK government data released under Sir Tim's scheme, also warned that just publishing data in itself wasn't enough.

"I think it's incumbent on those who believe in a positive and healthy society to get off their bums and produce fantastic services that are positive," he said.

Websites such as Wheredoesmymoneygo.org have already leading the charge in the UK

But Mr Loosemore said there was still a long way to go in fully harnessing the power of public data in the UK.

"There's an awful lot to play out, but the dam has been breached," he said.



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