Opendata and journalism: an issue of transparency and right to information

Hassel english

Reflections on the panel: Journalism and Open Data presented at the #Abrelatam15 and #ConDatos15 in Santiago de Chile in September 2015

First part (Lea en Español)

When we talk about open data and journalism, what do we mean?, Why is the union of both practices important? How are they related to the right to information, democracy, innovation, and the development of society?

I will answer the first question by defining the terms:

What is Open Data?
Data is open when it meets three characteristics:

  • Availability and Access: the data must be available as a whole and at no more than a reasonable reproduction cost, preferably by downloading over the internet. The data must also be available in a convenient and modifiable form.
  • Re-use and Redistribution: the data must be provided under terms that permit re-use and redistribution including the intermixing with other datasets.
  • Universal Participation: everyone must be able to use, re-use and redistribute – there should be no discrimination against fields of endeavour or against persons or groups. For example, ‘non-commercial’ restrictions that would prevent ‘commercial’ use, or restrictions of use for certain purposes (e.g. only in education), are not allowed.

All the above facilitates the integration and interoperability of data: that bases, so to speak, speak the same language. Additionally, open data are subject, if at all, to the attribution of the source and being shared in the same way they were found (See Open Data Handbook).

Governments are a major source of data production. Most of the information generated by the State is public, produced with money from all citizens. I say most because there are certain restrictions on what is declared a State Secret. (See note 1)

State information must be more than public: it must be open.

Public information is a liability. Certainly, for the mere fact of existing, the State complies with the duty of publicity. But this principle does not imply that citizens have access to information and can make an easy scrutiny of the same. See note 2

En el panel de Datos Abiertos y Periodismo también participaron: Florencia Coelho, Gerente de Investigación y Training de La Nación de Argentina, Miguel Paz, director de Poderomedia y Juan Manuel Casanueva, fundador de SocialTic
The following persons also participated in the Open Data and Journalism panel: Florencia Coelho, Manager of Research and Training of La Nación from Argentina, Miguel Paz, Director of Poderomedia, and Juan Manuel Casanueva, founder of SocialTic. There, I shared the experience of La Nación from Costa Rica with data journalism and access to public information (







What does usually happen in our countries?

The citizen interested in public information – which belongs to them for being produced with their money, must, I insist, first of all, know which institution has it, how to request the documents, and what laws and times protect them in their right.

As if that were not enough, with public information it does not matter if it is hidden in the bottom of a Web Site or a dusty physical file, on paper, PDF or, in the less unfortunate case, in a Word document (which at least is not a scanned image of the paper document, please).

So, is it enough that information be public, only? How does it serve society or the citizen interested in getting involved, improving, and claiming their rights within public affairs?

Information, by its mere existence does not generate any real value. Instead, that value is potentially achievable when it comes in the form of open data.

Open data are an asset, they proactively provide the citizens with the ability to look, analyze, and judge the decisions of the State without putting a veil that hinders their vision.

But beyond that role of transparency and democratic control, open data promote innovation and entrepreneurship through the creation of products, based on data analysis, which not only improves the quality of public services but people´s lives as well.

Let us think of applications to improve public transport, information available on health centers, or that which lets us know where to recycle.

A really open State does not believe to own public data. It is not afraid of delivering data that support its function and allegedly are a pillar to make decisions. It does not fear that these databases be evaluated by third parties to help improve or point management errors.

Open data are not only fundamental for journalism to fulfill its purpose, they are vital for any citizen interested in learning, analyzing data on their own, forming an opinion, sharing them with others and increasing the power of their conclusions by uniting them to those of others.



Data with a purpose

Open data are of little use if they don´t have a purpose. In this same Abrelatam-ConDatos forum, several speakers have insisted that data are not an end but an input.

Let´s be clear about something, opening data just for the sake of it will not generate significant changes in the management of State transparency and the development of innovative ideas to improve the quality of people´s lives.

That will only happen when, together, we educate ourselves and learn how to use them so that they generate a tangible benefit.

That´s our purpose every time we get involved in events like this, in Data Expeditions, Hackatones, or any other activity where knowledge is shared to manage, for better, open data.

We, journalists, civil society, open data activists and, of course, governments committed to openness, are in this together: providing resources and spaces to give citizens the necessary tools to scrutinize their data with expertise and judgment.

Why is journalism interested in open data?

In the book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel said:

«The purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and able to govern themselves.»

Journalists are mediators of information. Given the passive nature that public information has had so far, we have become the vehicle to request data that are of public interest, to transform them into news and deliver them to the people.

Having quality and updated open data is indispensable; it facilitates and expands our responsibility of being guardians of public interest, investigating, and denouncing those situations that foster inequality and injustice in our society.

But open data are not only crucial for journalism to fulfill its purpose, they are vital for any citizen interested in learning, analyzing data on their own, forming an opinion, sharing them with others and increasing the power of their conclusions by uniting them to those of others.

That is, open data are a tool to empower people; perhaps this is why there are some governments that fear to make them accessible.

Open data are not a fad, they are a necessity in a society that is, fortunately, increasingly pushing for greater participation in the decision-making process and requiring greater accountability from those to whom power is delegated.

Since 2007, when pioneers who laid the foundations of open data movement gathered in California, the interest in this philosophy has increased, being governments and the civil society the perfect equation.

Out of the 64 countries committed to the Open Government initiative, started in 2011, 13 are from Latin America. One fifth of the countries promoting the openness are Latin; we are saying that these governments are committed to be proactively accountable, to be more open to all kinds of information they produce, and to improve their ability to respond to their citizens.

Behind open data is the fulfillment of the right of access to information, the freedom that everyone should have to seek, to receive, and to disclose information held by public institutions.

1 On information declared confidential
In Costa Rica, for example, confidential information is not clearly defined. The Constitution, while guaranteeing free access to administrative departments for purposes of information of public interest, warns that State Secrets remain safe. However, the General Prosecutor’s Office has noted that: «in order to determine that some information is confidential or, where appropriate, that it represents a State Secret, as well as the restrictions based on public order, legislation is needed to regulate the matter». An interesting case occurred in February 2015 when the Minister of Justice refused to hand over data on prison overcrowding to the journalist David Delgado, alleging confidentiality. Nevertheless, days after, the judges of the Constitutional Chamber ordered the Minister to provide the information for being of public interest.
2 On the principle of disclosure of information
In this regard, I point out the answer of the Bar Association of Costa Rica to two requests for access to the database of its members, filed by journalists Alejandro Fernandez and David Delgado, from Grupo Nación in 2013 and 2015. The Bar argued that by placing the information of its members on its Website, it complied with its duty to inform, that the format in which these data are found is not of its business. Therefore, if the information was of any interest, it had to be downloaded from the Website, even when it means doing so member by member (at least 25,000 records). In this case, the judges of the Constitutional Chamber accepted that answer from the Bar and flatly rejected the writs of amparo previously filed.
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