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Business and Finance

Vested interests? There’s an app for that

Marleen Stikker
Well, not an app exactly. Co-founder of fab lab and technosocial think tank Waag Society Marleen Stikker tells Libertine about a forthcoming Dutch open data project that will help journalists make connections between people and power, politics and business

Transparent Nederlands will make data available to show the outside interests of people in powerful positions: the power structures and relationships that surround them. If it’s not already available, we’ll build it. We’ve just got the finance together and have media partners and journalists who will find the stories.

At the moment, the main goal is the emancipation of knowledge. I’m not sure it will immediately change the behaviour of people that you think are doing wrong. But it will help a lot of people to be less naïve.

We have a macroeconomic model which is very difficult to conquer because it buys power, it buys politics, it buys positions. People move between these – they’re CEO of a big company, then they become a political party leader. The next step they’re the president of a university. These people will bring their own perspective about why that triple helix has to collaborate. We’ve had suggestions that innovation should be guided by governments, business and universities – and since then every city is building up these economic wards.

Influence and innovation

In every organisation you will have people who follow the rules and people who really think something should change. The people who want to change things are in the most difficult position – they have to obey the rules but they also want to innovate. They need allies and information. Institutions and organisations themselves won’t bring the data or knowledge to the public, because it threatens their position.

The Waag Society is a middle ground organisation. You have institutions above it and grass roots movements below. As individuals we have our feet on the ground but we do make allies with the people in institutions who want change. We’re not neutral – it’s impossible to be. Even by the act of doing this project we’re being explicit that we want to have this type of information in the open.

More data, more problems

A lot of people forget that data isn’t objective. They think it’s only when you’re using it in a system or model or with algorithms that the interpretation starts. Sometimes people don’t even understand that data is an interpretation. A lot of the macroeconomic models that are being used are being seen as objective models, which of course they’re not. Even if you say ‘this is a man or a woman’ you put a category on something. The moment you give something a name or category it’s an interpretation of reality. Mostly, in discussions about data, that part of the story is not there. They just assume that the data is objective.

You have to be explicit about the way you measure, and what you measure, and the categories that you use when measuring. Among professionals in the field of big data and open data that’s not really discussed [let alone in the public sphere]. But that is the deepest insight you can get.

When we ran a smart citizens project we had 100 people coming to measure CO2 levels – people with backgrounds in social movements, in technology. They realised that the data was corrupted in the sense that you’d have to do a lot to it to eliminate bias, before you could use it. In that sense the project was really successful.

People think they can solve the world’s problems with big data – you’re spoiling the party by showing them that’s not true.

Waag.org. Interview by Debbi Evans. For more discussion around this subject, see Claire Melamed’s article here or Janine Wedel’s introduction to the Flexians, over at Pacific Standard (which also appeared in the Cities and Power issue of Libertine). Illustration: Carla Latsky

The moment you give something a name or category it’s an interpretation of reality. Mostly, in discussions about data, that part of the story is not there

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