Open data and citizen-led initiatives can be both friends and foes. Where it is available and ‘open’, official data not only encourages increased public participation but can also generate the production and scrutiny of new material, potentially of benefit to the original provider and others, official or otherwise.
In this way, official open data can be seen to improve democracy or, more accurately, the so-called ‘participative democracy’. On the other hand, the public is not always eager to share their personal information in the most open ways. Private and sometimes sensitive information however is required to
initiate projects of societal benefit in difficult times. Many citizens appear content to channel personal information exchange via social media instead of putting it on public web sites. The perceived benefits from sharing and complete openness do not outweigh any disadvantages or fear of regulation. This is
caused by various sources of contingency, such as the different appeals on citizens, construed in discourses on the participation society and the representative democracy, calling for social openness in the first and privacy protection in the latter. Moreover, the discourse on open data is an economic argument fighting the rules of privacy instead of the promotion of open data as one of the prerequisites for social action. Civil servants acknowledge that access to open data via all sorts of apps could contribute to the mushrooming of public initiatives, but are reluctant to release person-related sensitive information.
The authors will describe and discuss this dilemma in the context of some recent case studies from the Netherlands concerning governmental programmes on open data and citizens’ initiatives, to highlight both the governance constraints and uncertainties as well as citizens’ concerns on data access and data sharing. It will be shown that openness has a different meaning and understanding in the participation society and representative democracy: i.e. the tension surrounding the sharing of private social information versus transparency. Looking from both sides at openness reveals double contingency: understanding and intentions on this openness invokes mutual enforcing uncertainties. This double contingency hampers citizens’ eagerness to articipate. The paper will conclude with a practical recommendation for improving data governance.