What is Transparency?

I’ve been thinking a lot about transparency lately. The disappearance of Malaysian Airline Flight 370 (MH370) provided an interesting case to look at – and some important lessons. Releasing data which requires great expertise to decipher isn’t transparency.

My boss, when I worked on process research at the Boeing Company many years ago, used to drill into me the difference between information and data. To him, data was raw – and meaningless unless you knew how to interpret it. Information, on the other hand, had the meaning applied so you could understand it – information, to him, was meaningful.

Let’s recall some of the details of the MH370 incident. The plane disappeared without a trace – for reasons that remain a mystery. The only useful information, after radar contact was lost, was a series of pings received by Inmarsat’s satellite. Using some very clever mathematics involving Doppler shifts, Inmarsat was able to use that data to plot a course for the lost plane. That course was revealed to the world and the search progressed. However, when that course failed to turn up the missing plane, there were increasingly angry calls for more transparency from Inmarsat – to reveal the raw data. Inmarsat’s response was that they had released the information, in the form of a plotted course, to the public and to the appropriate authorities, However, they chose to withhold the underlying data, claiming it wouldn’t be useful. The demands persisted, primarily from the press and the victims’ families. Eventually Inmarsat gave in and agreed to release the data. With great excitement, the press reported this as “Breaking News”. Then, a bewildered look seemed to come across everyone and the story quickly faded away. Inmarsat had provided the transparency in the form it was demanded, releasing the raw data along with a brief overview and the relevant data highlighted, but it still wasn’t particularly useful. We’re still waiting to hear if anyone will ever be able to find any new insights into whatever happened to MH370 using this data. Most likely though, that story has run its course – you simply need Inmarsat’s expertise to understand the data.

There is an important lesson to be learned – for better or worse. Raw data can be released, but without the tools and expertise necessary to intepret it, it’s meaningless. Is that transparency? Alternatively, raw data can be interpreted into meaningful information, but that opens up questions as to the honesty and accuracy of the interpretation. Is that transparency? It’s very easy to hide the facts in plain sight – by delivering it in a convoluted and indecipherable data format or by selectively interpreting it to tell an incomplete story. How do we manage transparency to achieve the objective of providing the public with an open, honest, and useful view of government activities?

Next week, I want to describe my vision for how government information should be made public. I want to tackle the conflicting needs of providing information that is both unfiltered yet comprehensible. While I don’t have the answers, I do want to start the process of clarifying what better transparency is really going to achieve.

What is Transparency?

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