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Data Infrastructures

In the 21st century, digital infrastructures, such as open data or e-Governance platforms, are becoming an essential part of our cities. Open data has multiple advantages that should not be diminished, which can be summarized in three dimensions: political and social, economic and operational/technical (Janssen et alt, 2012); ranging from more transparency and democratic accountability to optimization of administrative processes. However, open data has a tendency to be treated as a myth, being idealized without paying much attention to the barriers it entails (Janssen et alt, 2012).

For this debate, I would like to focus on a specific myth and its actual limitations, the potential of engagement of the community. Open data can be an excellent tool to engage the public, promote participation and self-empowerment, provide more equal access to data and use the wisdom of the crowds (Janssen et alt, 2012). However, although the potential for these benefits exists, some barriers hinder its actual deployment, such as lack of time or knowledge to use the data (Janssen et alt, 2012). The myth that every constituent can make equal use of the data is powerful, but users have different resources, expertise and capabilities (Janssen et alt, 2012). Like any tool, its impact highly depends on who yields it and with which intentions.

For urban planners, issues such as accessibility or accounting for who is being left behind, should be central, especially considering that access has been detected as a crucial factor of social accountability (Malena et al. 2014). Not all communities have the same possibilities regarding the use of this infrastructure, creating situations in which certain sectors of the population are given a stronger voice, while others are silenced by the platform itself. However, the range of access possibilities is wide. Firstly, there is a physical infrastructure that has the potential of cutting out entire sectors of the population: access to broadband. Secondly, different populations might access the internet differently, with some only using certain devices that might constrain the content they can access or the quality of the experience. Finally, the design of the digital platform itself might favor certain types of thinking and, therefore, certain demographics. Open data platforms might be easier to read and follow for some people while participative focused platforms standardize how information is collected, constraining which kind of feedback people are able to provide (Reeves et al., 2005 in Salim et al. 2015). As Salim states (Salim et al. 2015), it is important “a comprehensive understanding of having all types of humans in the loop and all participation types”.

I believe that, as planners, if we consider ourselves as mediators in communicative approaches (Healey, 1992), we should demand a larger role in the oversight of how these infrastructures are deployed. We should be involved from the very physical installation of broadband to the design of online platforms providing open data or fostering citizen participation. There are instruments, such as basic visualization techniques (Janssen et alt, 2012) or the “three levels of engagement” (Memarovic et al, 2012a in Salim et al. 2015), that can be deployed to improve accessibility and move open data and e-governance a step closer to the myth.

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