A few days ago, Tom Steinberg—the founder and former director of mySociety—wrote a fascinating piece on power that was meant for people developing civic technology.
In a post on Medium, Tom clearly describes the nature of power as it relates to technology and implored civic technologists to think more directly about how shifts in power are affected by the development and adoption of new technologies. He uses the analogy of a nuclear bomb and the contraceptive pill to describe the different kinds of power shifts that can occur when technology becomes more broadly adopted.
Technologies that are like the Bomb can dramatically shift power between different parties, but this shift is a temporary one—once the technology becomes more broadly adopted the advantage of having it dissipates. The effect of the power shift is temporary.
On the other hand, innovations like the Pill can shift power in a way that does not dissipate when it becomes more broadly adopted.
Women making use of the Pill became relatively more powerful than they were previously. But once the pill was universally available they did not lose relative power again.
The effect of the power shift created by these kinds of innovations is more permanent.
This is an interesting way to think about technology in general and civic technology specifically—new innovations alter existing power structures, and those of us in the world of civic technology should think carefully about how what we do shifts power. If we care about the long term impact of what we do, then we should focus our efforts on the kinds of things that will create more permanent shifts in power, and more directly benefit those that do not currently have it.
Open Data as the Pill?
When I think about innovations that are more “Pill-like”—specifically in the realm of civic technology—my mind is immediately (and probably not surprisingly) drawn to open data. Open data can shift power from the bureaucracy to the individual, providing access that previously might have required resources to obtain—for example, via a FOIA request—or through a political connection or special relationship. And the benefit of open data to any one user doesn’t dissipate if it is used by others or if more open data is published.
I believe the power shift created by open data has legs.
But this power shift goes beyond just greater permanence—the framework of “Bomb versus Pill” can miss a key benefit that is provided by open data, and other innovations like it. I think we can improve this framework for describing the power shifts caused by new innovations by adding another category—the Shot.
The Power of the Shot
Perhaps no other innovation in the last 100 years has provided more benefits to the disadvantaged—those without power—than vaccines. The burden of infectious disease falls disproportionately on the poor and those without resources. The development of vaccines that cure and prevent infectious diseases can extended life expectancy, empowered women in poor countries, and—among other things—help promote peace, mobility, and stability.
All of these outcomes provide outsized benefits to those without power and resources (because those with power and resources are more likely to already enjoy those benefits). There are clear power-shifting impacts inherent in the work to eradicate infectious diseases.
Like the Pill, the power shift caused by vaccines does not dissipate as it is more broadly adopted. The effectiveness of a vaccine that protects against a specific disease doesn’t diminish if it is used in one country or 100. But the magical thing about innovations like vaccines is not that their power doesn’t dissipate as they become ubiquitous, it’s that their power and benefit can be enhanced as the become more widely adopted.
As vaccines become more broadly adopted, the population can benefit from so called “herd immunity.” According to the World Health Organization, herd immunity occurs when:
The decline of disease incidence is greater than the proportion of individuals immunized because vaccination reduces the spread of an infectious agent by reducing the amount and/or duration of pathogen shedding by vaccinees, retarding transmission.
This reduces overall disease incidence and benefits even those that do not (or can not) take vaccines directly.
On an individual level, the Shot can cause a power shift that has permanence in much the same way as the Pill. But as the adoption of this innovation becomes more broad, the depth and breadth of this benefit is enhanced—broader adoption creates a more fundamental power shift.
Open Data as the Shot
Open data can create a power shift by giving individuals with limited resources or without political connections or special relationships access to information about their government and elected officials. Like the Pill, this power shift doesn’t dissipate as open data becomes more broadly adopted. And—more importantly—like the Shot, the power shift caused by open data can be broadened and deepened as more and more governments begin to adopt open data.
On an individual level, I benefit from open data by having new insights into the operation of my government. As more governments begin to adopt open data, I can gain additional insights by understanding how well my government operates in relation to other governments across the country, and around the world.
If my government releases information on infant mortality or educational attainment, it may provide new insights into the state of my community. If other governments release similar kinds of data, it can provide additional insights as to how my community compares to jurisdictions in other places. Like the Shot, broader adoption of open data can lead to a more fundamental power shift.
This is not meant to suggest that every open data set creates the kind of power shift we should be looking for, or that open data can not be used to protect those that already have power. There is much more work to be done to realize the true promise of open data.
It’s also true that not every vaccine has the proper focus or potency to achieve a shift in power. But this doesn’t take away from power disrupting potential of this innovation.
The adoption of open data can result in a shift in power from those who have it to those that do not. As open data gets more broadly adopted, its potential to shift power in lasting and fundamental ways is increased.
For those of us that work in the world of civic technology, its important to understand how new innovations can shift power. Will our work produce innovations like the Bomb, the Pill, or the Shot?
It’s up to us to decide.
This piece was originally posted on Mark Headd’s blog, Civic.io.