Penman No. 245: The Devil Is in the Data

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Penman for Monday, April 3, 2017

 

 

WE’RE OFTEN told that the devil is in the details, but today, you’ll likely find it in the data—that amorphous, often opaque stream of 1’s and 0’s whose infinite permutations define, describe, and direct our daily lives from our social-security pensions to our children’s grades.

Forty years ago, all you might have needed was an ID card, a driver’s license, and a passbook for bank deposits and withdrawals. You didn’t have a mess of numbers and certainly no passwords to memorize (and to lose). A signature was something you scribbled on paper with a pen, and an ID picture—invariably ugly and smelling of the sourish chemical bath it came out of—was a black-and-white mug shot the size of a postage stamp.

Speaking of which, if someone wanted to steal your “data,” they first had to steal an envelope with your name and address on it, and (if they wanted to keep the theft a secret) open the envelope gently with a cloud of steam. Postmen had to be waylaid, dogs euthanized, windows broken into, brass locks opened, and filing cabinets pried loose. Then, and only then, could the robbers get their gloved hands on your stock certificates, your paramour’s love letters, your UPCAT score, and your secret recipe for Lola Oryang’s Sinigang.

These thoughts crossed my mind last week as I sat in a committee meeting that pondered the impositions and implications of the Freedom of Information Act on government bureaucracies like our university’s. As old-guard civil libertarians, we all marched at one time or another for freedom and democracy, and have prized freedom of expression above all others, so it was probably safe to assume that we were all in support of freedom of information—the notion that citizens have the right of access to information from their governments, toward greater transparency and accountability, which presumably leads to better governance. (I’m not a lawyer, so this is my pedestrian’s appreciation of it.)

So the citizen asks a question, and the government provides the answer, right? Not so fast.  Like many good things, FOI isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially when you get down to the nitty-gritty of its implementation. This could have been why, despite calling for an FOI law for many years, Filipinos didn’t get one even under Noynoy Aquino, who promised it when he ran for president in 2009. It took President Duterte—in what I’ll hazard to be his most popular move among his opponents—to enact an FOI measure through Executive Order No. 2 shortly after he took office last year, since Congress, the keeper of many secrets, couldn’t pass an FOI bill.

The order mandated that “Every Filipino shall have access to information, official records, public records and to documents and papers pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions, as well as to government research data used as basis for policy development,” with information referring to “records, documents, papers, reports, letters, contracts, minutes and transcripts of official meetings, maps, books, photographs, data, research materials, films, sound and video recording, magnetic or other tapes, electronic data, computer stored data, any other like or similar data or materials recorded, stored or archived in whatever format, whether offline or online, which are made, received, or kept in or under the control and custody of any government office pursuant to law, executive order, and rules and regulations or in connection with the performance or transaction of official business by any government office.”

FOI is supposed to work hand in glove with another initiative called Open Data, meant to be a repository of all the data requested from and proactively disclosed by the government, working through an eFOI platform where requests can be posted and processed.

That all sounds good if you’re going after an important or interesting document like a politician’s financial records, but again it’s not that simple. EO2 is accompanied by a list of nine major classes of exemptions, including sensitive personal information, trade secrets, and certain proceedings and investigations. (For all these documents, visit www.foi.gov.ph.)

In other words, and contrary to what some people might have naively expected, FOI is by no means an absolute right, bounded as it is by considerations such as those delineated by the Data Privacy Act of 2012. The DPA was designed to bring the Philippines and its booming BPO industry, which handles loads of personal data, in line with international privacy standards.

Between freedom of information and data privacy is a wide gray swath that’s still being demarcated by lawyers, ethicists, and the administrators who have to implement whatever the final rules are going to be.

In the university, we routinely receive scores of requests from, say, alumni looking for their old classmates and asking for their current addresses; unfortunately, even if we had them (which we often don’t), we can’t and won’t give them out. We can give you your transcript of records, but not someone else’s. These are the easier questions to deal with.

But what do you do when someone asks for the results of a publicly funded research project that could have commercial applications? How do you respond to a patently frivolous request for information (which, if properly framed and presented, the law still requires you to answer in some form within 15 days), like “How many blades of grass are there in UP Diliman?”

It’ll take a while to sort these issues out, which lie on the periphery of a larger and thornier ideological debate. We authors may believe our copyright to be sacrosanct, but there’s a whole “freedom of knowledge” school of thought out there (and even within academia) opposed to the idea of intellectual property and copyright, supported by groups that also advocate electronic civil disobedience.

“Is ‘We don’t know’ a valid answer to an FOI request?” I had to ask the people at our meeting, but I couldn’t get a categorical yes or no. Strangely enough, I found that ambiguity comforting, because it assured me that we still had a lot of thinking to do. Data is one thing, information another, and wisdom beyond legislation to establish.

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(Image from techcrunch.com)

 

 

 

 

 

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