Expert Commentary

Open data, government and citizen perceptions: First national survey, by the Pew Research Center 2015

2015 report from the Pew Research Center based on the first national survey testing responses to government openness projects and measuring public perceptions.

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The push for open government and open data by federal officials, as well as authorities across many states and cities, can seem an unmitigated good. Talk to journalists, however, and there are myriad areas where they believe government at all levels is still being less than transparent — and less than helpful in revealing facts that the public is entitled to know.

Scholars who study transparency initiatives point out the ambiguities inherent in many transparency projects, the modest real outcomes in most cases, and even the potential downsides of “naked government” or the possibility of using the banner of transparency to whitewash or conceal. For example, the Obama administration has said it has a “lot to brag about” in terms of responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and in 2014 alone it “processed 647,142 FOIA requests, and over 91% of those requests resulted in the release of either some or all of the requested records,” according to press secretary Josh Earnest. However, the Associated Press did its own analysis and concluded that the Obama administration set a “new record” for denying records in 2014. (This debate comes as the federal government continues to field more and more requests from citizens and firms of all kinds, in addition to journalists.)

Meanwhile, open-data initiatives such as have been criticized by journalists for the perceived lack of useful datasets, even if businesses have leveraged some of the data streams. And at all levels, it is unclear if merely releasing datasets meaningfully contributes to public knowledge or understanding. Part of the cognitive dissonance might be explained by the fact that even the original “open data” agencies, such as the federal government’s principal statistical agencies (the Census Bureau, for example), have struggled to keep up with the pace of Web innovation, from user-centric design and interactive applications to search and mobile optimization.

Finally, it is also worth noting that recent research has found that members of the public often demonstrate an unconscious (and negative) bias in their evaluations of public sector performance, irrespective of the underlying reality or truth.

A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center, “Americans’ Views on Open Government Data,” by John B. Horrigan and Lee Rainie, is based on the first national survey testing how these government openness projects, and the wider movement around them, is filtering down into public consciousness. Pew Research polled some 3,200 persons in late 2014 through Web surveys and mail. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

The report’s findings include:

  • A majority of survey respondents said it was either “very easy” or “somewhat easy” to find out how federal (56%), state (61%) or local government (62%) are performing.
  • When asked about how federal and state governments share data with the public, just 5% of those surveyed said they share “very effectively.” However, 39% said the federal government was sharing “somewhat effectively,” and those evaluations were even higher for state (44%) and local (45%) governments.
  • When asked if they had used the Internet or an app to access government information or data over the past year, only about one-third said they had accessed federal government information online; likewise, about a one-third said they had accessed state or local information/data.
  • A combined 65% said they had either used the Internet or an app to get information about the state, local, or federal government, or conducted online activities/transactions such as renewing a driver’s license, reporting a problem or paying a fine.
  • The report notes that most people are “still largely engaged in ‘e-Gov 1.0’ online activities, with far fewer attuned to ‘Data-Gov 2.0’ initiatives that involve agencies sharing data online for public use.”
  • In terms of monitoring services, 20% said they had accessed government data about teacher or student performance, while 17% had looked for information about hospitals or health care providers.
  • Citizens were split on the question of whether or not publicizing data helps improve government services, though 56% said they believe it helps journalists cover government more thoroughly.

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  • On issues of privacy versus openness, the public had varying views: 60% said they were comfortable with government providing online information about individual teacher performance; 62% were comfortable with providing online criminal records for individuals; 82% were comfortable with government posting online health information about local restaurants. Yet only 22% of respondents were comfortable with providing online information about individuals’ mortgages, and only 54% were even comfortable with putting real estate transaction information online.
  • The authors separate the respondents into four rough categories, reflecting their level of attention and relative optimism about open data and government: “Some 17% of all adults — Ardent Optimists — have truly signed on to government data initiatives…. Another 20% are steady users of online government resources, but are skeptical that they will have any payoff to government performance. These Committed Cynics use the internet to find the government information they need and have relatively high levels of awareness of when governments do a good job sharing information about data…. Some 27% like the idea that data can improve how government performs, but these Buoyant Bystanders are not likely to use the tools that the data enables to connect with government…. Finally, 36% of the general population can be called Dormant Doubters.”

“The survey unearthed relatively high levels of broad and simple engagement with government data as people use the Internet to access government services and information,” the authors conclude. “At the same time, the survey shows relatively low levels of public awareness of government initiatives to open the data vaults for the public and entrepreneurs. There is optimism among many citizens that government data can improve government accountability (against some caution that open data can improve government performance), along with some level of concern about government sharing data that may hit too close to home.”

Keywords: data journalism, open government, big data, open data, journalism, local reporting

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