Students & Campus
03 December 2020

The “Open” Movement and Its Discontents

At the Open Knowledge Foundation, which works towards a “fair, free and open future” and where non-personal information is free for everyone to use, master candidate Anne Lee Steele has been learning about how the “open data” movement has fundamentally changed the internet’s information landscape.

Over the past decade, the “open data” movement has become almost universally accepted, having been successfully integrated into the international ethic, and implemented by a wide variety of international actors, including the United Nations (UN). But years after the movement first began, “openness” hasn’t proved to be the silver bullet everyone hoped it would be.

These days, data literacy, ethics, and structural bias have taken priority over availability alone, because openness is no longer associated with accessibility. While this is a welcome shift, “open” practices still have yet to be implemented everywhere. Because of this, the data landscape has become uneven, groomed in certain areas and almost impenetrable in others. Belying it all is the tension between “open” and “accessible”, which remains woefully unaddressed and more urgent than ever, because technical subjects require translation in order to be understood at all, regardless of whether the data is “open”.

During my fellowship at the Foundation, my main project will be working with the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) digital team to help translate its open dataset for the public, as a data journalist, designer, and anthropologist (in training). Although all of the session records for the UPR have been uploaded online and are available for download, they are a classic example of the aforementioned tension. It’s unrealistic to expect the general public to understand such technocratic language, and so middle actors like journalists and educators act as translators for this sort of work. Funding for such projects is constantly under threat, despite the fact that they need support to continue with what they do best.

I hope that my work with UPR’s open data will allow for novel experimentation with new ways of understanding and imagining what it means to be “open”, in part by making it accessible. The UPR is the only forum (as of yet) that allows countries to speak to each other directly, and under more holistic standards. In other words, this means that new lines of communication have been developed to find solutions to the world’s problems: Uganda’s representation has been able to speak directly to South Korea’s record on environmental rights, and vice versa. Chile has been able to speak to Switzerland’s record on press freedom, Bolivia on Mongolia’s protection of children, etc. The United States has received the largest number of recommendations overall, while France has given the most. While the possibilities for this forum are exciting, it’s hard to convey through a spreadsheet, or a report that very few will read.

Of course, there are underlying politics and social relationships behind this process, which anthropologists like Professor Julie Billaud have written about extensively. I hope that my visualisations of the recommendations themselves, either given or received, will complement these ethnographic studies. In fact, the two are meant to exist in tandem, helping to expand our understanding of what the UPR is and does: both within the abstract spreadsheet of recommendations and recommendees, and also very much in Room XX at the Palais des Nations. As an anthropologist (in training), I put human experiences first, in all their imperfections and contradictions. But as a journalist, I know that data can do a lot to complement these narratives, if done well.

Open or not, redefining the “open” in “open data” still requires something that technology is as yet unable to provide: accessibility, understanding and the translation needed to convey the human experience within the data.

Students interested in applying for the Open Knowledge Foundation Fellows programme may contact Anne with any questions. They can also learn more about the programme on the Fellows website and about the Frictionless system on its dedicated website

Anne Lee Steele is a Reproducible Research Fellow at the Open Knowledge Foundation, and a second-year master candidate in the Anthropology and Sociology programme.

She is also the Co-Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor of The Graduate Press.

Her research and writing focus on how technology is changing the lives of the world’s most vulnerable, from its applications in humanitarian contexts to the precarious supply chains required to make them.