Democratic Commons: Open Data infrastructure for democracy

Back in September mySociety’s Chief Executive Mark introduced the idea of the ‘Democratic Commons’: a grand vision where political data is open to all, for the benefit of all. Since then we’ve been quietly working away on making the concept a reality, with some activity more clearly feeding into it, like our current series of events for GLOW, and some requiring a bit of explanation, like our relationship with Facebook — but what we haven’t really done to date is expand on what the Democratic Commons means and why we believe it is so important.

So let’s take a go at a clear definition.

The Open Data Institute have been promoting the idea of data infrastructure for some time now:

A data infrastructure consists of data assets, the organisations that operate and maintain them and guides describing how to use and manage the data.

It underpins transparency, accountability, public services, business innovation and civil society.

Our vision for the Democratic Commons begins with this concept and advocates for a particular strand within it. It promotes the building of an open, sustainable data infrastructure for political data on a global scale. So nothing too grand then!

In essence this is an evolution of our EveryPolitician project — it takes the lessons we learned there and uses them to underpin a new approach. But it is also the culmination of many years of running and developing projects all over the world and facing the same challenges with the data needed to get started time and again: lists of politicians not up to date, or in an unusable format; ‘unique’ IDs being less than unique; administrative boundaries not being available, available under restrictive license or in some entirely unhelpful format.

The effort and cost of just getting this initial data in place — before you can even start the real work of empowering citizens or holding power to account — is often so high that it stymies teams from the off.  We want to change this. We want organisations who are interested in running transparency or accountability projects in their countries to be able to find all this infrastructure in place and get to building straight away.

Beyond this core goal we also want to provide richer open data because the better the data the better the questions that can be asked of it and if, as Giuseppe Sollazzo says, data journalism is the future of Open Data, then we need to make sure that we can provide those journalists the answers they need (and maybe help tackle #fakenews a bit in the doing so!).

In no way do we see ourselves as the gatekeepers for this data and instead we are seeking to be true to the concept of ‘commons’ from the start — working with the global communities and platforms that already exist in support of Open Data and content.

We’ve already started to work with the Wikimedia Foundation through our project with Wikidata and see this as a cornerstone of any approach to the Democratic Commons. Of course we also want to speak to members of the OpenStreetMap community about their experiences with administrative boundaries and we’ll be reaching out to them soon.

In the coming weeks we are going to be recruiting for some additional colleagues to help us with all of this so if political and or geographical data is your thing please keep an eye out.

Even with some additions to the team there’s no way we can achieve this alone — we’ve already collaborated with partner organisations like Code4Japan and Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland  — and there will be many more partnerships to come. You can expect to read much more about that in future months.


Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash