TILT seminar: Gijs van Maanen MA
16.30 -17.30 , Zoom
Open ground water data in Brabant: a philosophical ethnography
For about a decade, governments have been experimenting with the publishing of ‘open data’. The concept of open data usually refers to data made available by governments with technical features that allow for easy reuse by non-governmental actors such as citizens and journalists. The act of publishing open data, then, is thought to strengthen values like openness, transparency, collaboration, participation, and accountability. But not much is actually known about the effects of open data-policies. In what way do open data-policies effect society? How does open data change the functioning of governmental organizations themselves? And how does open data effect the life and work of involved civil servants, citizens, and other actors? In my research I study the practice of open data-policies in the Netherlands through the lenses of ‘public philosophy’ and ethnography. Drawing from the work of political philosopher James Tully I argue for an engaged and critical analysis of political practices in practice. Or, to put it differently: a study of political practices like open data-policies requires an analysis of these policies in practice and with practitioners, rather than through the constructions or applications of theories of justice, legitimacy, or democracy.
To be able to bring this idea into practice, I engage in an in-depth case-study analysis of open data-practices found in two different governmental bodies. The case-study that I will discuss here concerns the practice of measuring ground water levels by a water board (‘waterschap’), and the publishing of these measurements in a (relatively) open format on their website. For about one year, I am allowed to interview everyone who is willing and involved in the process of ground water measurement, data-processing, data-publication, and policy-making. The question guiding this ‘following of the data’ is (shortly) how this open data process transforms the regulatory practices of the governmental institution of the water board.
My preliminary results indicate the multifaceted function of the open data within the water board itself, but also between the water board and other actors. For some participants, the open data functions as an object facilitating discussion between various parties. For them, it has more of a communicative than an epistemological function. Other participants praise the manner the open data, in its particular visualized form, allows for easy decision-making. For other groups, the open data functions as a legal benchmark with which they can evaluate the water board’s water management. And some, understand the open data-set as an invitation to critically interrogate the policy of which the data publishing is formally part.
Thus different groups of actors not only interpret the same data-set differently, but also do different things with it. The question left to answer is which ‘domain of knowing’ in the end determines how the open data should be understood. Or to put it differently: which constellations of actors, spaces, techniques are the most dominant ones at which moments, and which ones are being silenced? Does the publication of data, for instance, increase the transparent character of the water boards’ policy, and if so (or not), why (not)?
Gijs van Maanen is PhD researcher at the Tilburg Law School, where he studies Dutch open data policy through the lenses of political philosophy, ethnography, and STS. He studied history and political philosophy in both Groningen and Leiden. His history thesis was titled 'Deliberative democracy in the Netherlands' and focused on one specific deliberative 'mini public' which took place in the city of Groningen. In his philosophy thesis, he evaluated the social-political relevance of a new movement in feminist political theory called 'new materialism'. He writes on, among other topics, theories and practices of openness, ethics washing, and democratic theory. He is affiliated with the ‘Ambassade van de Noordzee’, a Latour-inspired long-term initiative examining the rights and political voices of the North Sea.
Moderator: Linnet Taylor