Special Track 6

Special Track 6

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Title: Rethinking the open data movement through an intersectional feminist lens

Track Chairs:

Anjali Mehta, Civic Software Foundation (corresponding author)

Gülsen Güler, Data Literation (corresponding author)

Amanda Greene, Lehigh University

John O’ Reilly, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts

Shreyasha Paudel, Civic Software Foundation

Author keywords:


Intersectional feminism

Data governance



The open data movement has been hailed as a public good, though a growing body of scholarship has shown how it hasn’t lived up to the hype. This is particularly relevant coming from both the Freedom of Information and the Open Government Data communities. A number of researchers have emphasized there are lots of problems with it including: not making open data truly accessible, presenting uncleaned or overly technical data, the act of claiming something is open (without proprietary licensing) when it does not meet all the criteria of openness.

An overarching critique is the phenomenon of “open-washing” — having evidence for data-driven decision making with no context around data or planned use cases, and with little to no consideration on its implications and embedded biases (e.g. Thorne, 2009; Wiley, 2011; Gurstein 2011; Villum, 2014). Johnson, in his 2014 article “From Open Data to Information Justice,” influentially frames these failings as a problem of information justice, which has been obfuscated by the neoliberal ethos surrounding the open data movement’s openness. He stresses in particular that injustices arise from “the failure of the open data movement to understand the constructed nature of data.”

This has spawned new areas of needed intervention to make data actually useful, fair, and accessible. Along the way, it has become clear that social justice movements have an agenda here too, especially regarding equity in governance. Policy can drive accountability in data for the people who are represented in or by it – the data constituents.

This special track builds on Johnson’s call to address the failures of the open data movement by turning instead to information justice. We suggest that an intersectional feminist lens that foregrounds social justice can help remedy the many issues with open data and make it a true public good.

We can build on this discourse and move toward tactical actions. One catalyst for the conversation will be our paper on the need for structured context, as well as the CIVIC Data Library of Context project from the nonprofit Civic Software Foundation. Setting a standard for context 1) brings visibility to the gap between lived experience and representation in data and 2) provides a practical framework for restorative practice that improves scientific and cultural insight. (D’Ignazio & Klein, 2020)

This is just the start of an exciting opportunity for a more expansive dialogue around these issues. We are interested in facilitating debate on social justice-oriented approaches to open data, or ways of addressing its defects in both theoretical and practical terms.

Works cited:

D’Ignazio, Catherine, and Lauren F. Klein. 2020. Data feminism. MIT Press.

Gurstein, Michael B. 2011. “Open data: Empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone?.” First Monday. at https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/3316/2764

Johnson, Jeffrey Alan. 2014. “From open data to information justice.” Ethics and Information Technology 16.4: 263-274.

Pomerantz, Jeffrey, and Robin Peek. 2016. “Fifty shades of open.” First Monday, at


Thorne, Michelle. 2009. “Openwashing,” Michelle Thorne: I work for the internets (14 March), at


Villum, Christian. 2014. “‘Open-washing’ – The difference between opening your data and simply making them available,” Open Knowledge Blog (10 March), at


Wiley, David. 2011. “Openwashing – The new greenwashing,” iterating toward openness (27 July), at http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/1934

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