Open government data practices

Part of my post-doc research is interested in how civic hacking activities can be understood as an open government data practices contributing to the production and enactment of particular ‘open publics’.

Governments throughout Europe (and indeed all over the world) have begun to open their data repositories to the public.[1] Such initiatives are based on legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) or Transparency Act (TA) but also on the assumption that opening government data is of ‘important and growing economic significance’ (Neelie Kroes)[2]. Further, government bodies have come to see ‘their’ data as a means to provide value-added services to citizens.

In times of considerable budget cuts in the public sector, more and more public authorities are turning to ‘civic hackers’[3] to help them meet citizens’ expectations with respect to reduced administrative burden and more efficient services (e.g. European Commission, 2014). At so-called hackathons or through competitions inexpensive services or apps are developed and make use of open data. Yet while hackathons are becoming more and more popular, research on the ways in which they configure open government data and potentially improve government’s information management is sparse to non-existent. My post-doc research attempts to address this gap.

At hackathons the promises of open data such as social benefits are meant to be accomplished through technological (or sociotechnical) means. Researching hackathons (e.g. its performance, the produced codes) provides a new and interesting field for studying contemporary entanglements of the social, political and technical. Conceptually the research contributes to the emerging field of studies on sociomateriality in Organisation Studies and Information Systems Research, in particular Information Management. In doing so, the research situates open data as relational objects, intra-actively produced and configured within sociomaterial assemblages.

These are some of the questions I am addressing with the post-doc project:
How do information systems, government data, policies, open data advocates, NGOs, social workers, civil servants, system developers, code, journalists, apps (and many more) come together and intra-act in order to achieve social benefits through technological tools?

Karen Barad (2007) argues in her ‘agential realist’ approach that relata in a network are mutually constitutive. The notion of ‘intra-action’ that Barad coined hereby does not just acknowledge the interaction and relational effects of network actors but emphasises the fact that they do not pre-exist their ‘intra-action’ as independent entities (p.33). Hence it is important to realise that not only does a connection need to be created, but that what is being connected is being produced simultaneously. A network does not connect independent, hence pre-existing entities, but it produces and configures them. It is important to understand that actors are ‘made to be’ (Mol, 2010, p. 255).

Particular modes of ordering produce particular sociomaterial arrangements; they create and associate a diverse set of heterogeneous entities such as people, practices, ideas, objects, and discourses in certain ways (Law, 1994, 2001). The production and performance of these associations results in a web of relations that produces certain subject- and object-positions. The research is interested in the modes of ordering that configure hackathons as co-design practice. This leads to a second research question:

How is open government data intra-actively produced and performed at hackathons?

‘Big data’ has become a ubiquitous buzzword that increasingly seeks the attention of social scientists (e.g. Kitchin, Forthcoming). In particular, the proposed research contributes to scholarly efforts that aim to understand (big) (digital) data and its enactments within heterogeneous assemblages of people, practices, objects, Information Technology, infrastructures, mobile devices, policies and many more.This includes the study of what it is, that is accomplished at hackathons (who uses it, what for, what are its meaning).

Open government data, is a particularly well suited topic to study the social life of data as it inevitably invokes considerations not only about the intertwining of social objectives and technological tools but also their political dimension (e.g. in what kind of (open) society do we want to live in) and its ethical implications (e.g. with respect to the digital divide).

Open data in use: what subject and object-positions of the ‘open public’ and an ‘open administration’/’open government’ are being produced at hackathons and how are they differently enacted through ‘open data’?

Based on differing imaginaries and different material assemblages of data, code, services, mobile technologies, and individuals different subject- and object-position of the ‘open public’, the user of open data services are produced. The design of a product envisages and prescribes its use and configures the user always only to a certain extent. Such configurations remain subject to negotiations between the many different actors involved and their respective agendas. Hence how does ‘open data’ script ‘open government’ and to what extent does it actually reconfigure administration; how well accepted and how sustainable may it be? How do these different actors contribute to different forms of information management at government institutions?


[1] Under the heading of Open Government Data have initiatives such as the European Commission’s Open Data Strategy , the global Open Government Partnership  and national initiatives on all governmental levels  (such as the German GovData portal) been instigated.

[3] Civic hackers are anybody ‘who is willing to collaborate with others to create, build, and invent open source solutions using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges‘ relevant to their neighbourhoods, cities or states (source: http://hackforchange.org/page/about).