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Freedom of Information is the Best Fuel for the Engine of Innovations

28th September 2018

September 28th was declared as the International Right to Know Day some 16 years ago, but only in the last couple of years has it become clear that this is not only an occasion for celebration for journalists and watchdogs, but also for Digital Social Innovators.

The role of Freedom of Information in supporting other human rights was recognised as far back as the first session of the United Nations in 1946. In Resolution 59 on the International Conference on the Right to Information, it was stated that “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.” A material expression of this view was the inclusion of the right to information as a necessary element of the right to express an opinion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and European Convention on Human Rights (1953).

Fast forward seventy years, and freedom of Information laws are now being used by activists and civil society to gather data on air pollution, demographics, public authorities’ performance, transportation, health and many, many more fields. Indeed, many innovations in our DSI4EU database use such information, while in the TransparenCEE Network the vast majority use access to information and open data to, for example, increase public participation and tackle corruption.

Access to information is essential for DSI to succeed: the very first paragraph of the DSI Manifesto states that “EU and national public institutions should enforce laws and promote programmes that make data (...) open and broadly accessible [and] promote Open Data approaches (innovative ways of opening up, capturing, sharing, using, analyzing and interpreting open data).” Furthermore, information and data needs to be provide in a timely manner, accessible (and often machine-readable) format and free of charge.  

EU legislators have also acknowledged the importance of open public data in digital innovation, namely by creating a legal framework on reuse of public sector information. In turn, this has enabled rapid growth of tools and services devoted to increasing the quality of public services.  

While celebrating positive changes in access to data we should bear in mind that any success in the field is not constant. According to the latest Open Data Barometer, “the UK — the global open data leader for many years — has seen its total score decline slightly in the five years we’ve been measuring performance for the Barometer. The only other government to see an absolute reduction in score in this leaders group is the USA — another early pioneer which has seen its score fall by 11 points and can no longer be considered an open data champion.” Therefore, there is a need for permanent engagement into policy and monitoring activities to improve the state of openness of governments and their institutions, not too run out of fuel for innovations. If we do not keep up the fight for better access to information and data, we risk not just standing still but even stepping backwards, at a time when government transparency, accountability and openness are more important than ever.

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