From open data to information justice


This paper argues for subsuming the question of open data within a larger question of information justice, with the immediate aim being to establish the need for rather than the principles of such a theory. I show that there are several problems of justice that emerge as a consequence of opening data to full public accessibility, and are generally a consequence of the failure of the open data movement to understand the constructed nature of data. I examine three such problems: the embedding of social privilege in datasets as the data is constructed, the differential capabilities of data users (especially differences between citizens and “enterprise” users), and the norms that data systems impose through their function as disciplinary systems. In each case I show that open data has the quite real potential to exacerbate rather than alleviate injustices. This necessitates a theory of information justice. I briefly suggest two complementary directions in which such a theory might be developed: one defining a set of moral inquiries that can be used to evaluate the justness of data practices, and another exploring the practices and structures that a social movement promoting information justice might pursue.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.


  1. 1.

    Evelyn Cruz, e-mail correspondence, March 29–31, 2013.

  2. 2.

    Jane Doe (pseudonym), personal communication, March 20, 2013.


  1. Adams, S. (2013). Post-panoptic surveillance through healthcare rating sites. Information, Communication & Society, 16(2), 215–235.

  2. Archer, P. (2012). Report on using open data: Policy modeling, citizen empowerment, data journalism. Brussels, Belgium: W3C. March 3, 2013.

  3. Baepler, P., & Murdoch, C. J. (2010). Academic analytics and data mining in higher education. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 4(2).

  4. Britz, J., Hoffmann, A., Ponelis, S., Zimmer, M., & Lor, P. (2012). On considering the application of Amartya Sen’s capability approach to an information-based rights framework. Information Development. March 13, 2013.

  5. Charles, N. (2013). Big data madness and my football prediction model. Wallpapering Fog. March 25, 2013.

  6. Cohen-Cole, Ethan. (2011). Credit card redlining. Review of Economics and Statistics, 93(2), 700–713.

  7. Coleman, E. Gabriella. (2013). Coding freedom: The ethics and aesthetics of hacking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  8. Craig, T., & Ludloff, M. E. (2011). Privacy and big data. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.

  9. Croll, A. (2012). Big data is our generation’s civil rights issue, and we don’t know it. O’Reilly Radar. March 12, 2013.

  10. Donovan, K. (2012). Seeing like a slum: Towards open, deliberative development. SSRN scholarly paper, Social Science Research Network, Rochester, NY. March 5, 2013.

  11. Foucault, Michel. (1995). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (Second Vintage ed.). New York: Vintage Books.

  12. Global Voices Advocacy. (2012). Home. Online censorship alpha. March 7, 2013.

  13. Goldrick-Rab, S. (2013). What have we done to the talented poor? The Education Optimists. March 21, 2013.

  14. Gurstein, M. (2007). What is community informatics (and why does it matter?). Milan: Polimetrica.

  15. Gurstein, M. (2011). Open data: Empowering the empowered or effective data use for everyone? First Monday 16(2). March 5, 2013.

  16. Hoxby, C. M., & Avery, C. (2012). The missingone-offs: The hidden supply of high-achieving, low income students. Working paper, National Bureau of Economic Research. March 21, 2013.

  17. Johnson, J. A. (2006). Technology and pragmatism: From value neutrality to value criticality. Paper presented at the Western Political Science Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

  18. Johnson, J. A. (2007). The illiberal culture of e-democracy. Journal of E-Government, 3(4), 85–112.

  19. Kaminski, M. (2012). Reading over your shoulder: Social readers and privacy law. Wake Forest Law Review, 2(Online), 13–20.

  20. Kane, M. T. (2006). Validation. In R. L. Brennan (Ed.), Educational measurement (pp. 17–64). Westport, CT: American Council on Education/Praeger.

  21. Kolm, S. (1995). Distributive justice. In R. E. Goodin & P. Pettit (Eds.), A companion to contemporary political philosophy (pp. 438–461). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

  22. Learmonth, Michael. (2009). Next-gen creatives focus on Web’s data detritus. Advertising Age, 80(21), 14.

  23. MacKinnon, Rebecca. (2012). Consent of the networked: The world-wide struggle for Internet freedom. New York: Basic Books.

  24. Matias, J. N. (2014). Uncovering algorithms: Looking inside the Facebook news feed. MIT Center for Civic Media. July 22, 2014.

  25. Morozov, E. (2012). You can’t say that on the Internet. The New York Times. March 14, 2013.

  26. Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism (1st ed.). New York: PublicAffairs.

  27. Nahdet ElMahrousa. (2013). Harass Map. March 27, 2013.

  28. National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). The integrated postsecondary education data system. March 25, 2013.

  29. National Science Foundation. (2012). The national science foundation open government plan 2.0. March 12, 2013.

  30. Nissenbaum, H. (2010). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law Books.

  31. Open Government Working Group. (2010). 8 principles of open government data. March 25, 2013.

  32. Orszag, P. R. (2009). Open government directive. Office of Management and Budget. March 25, 2013.

  33. Parry, M. (2012). College degrees, designed by the numbers.

  34. Prewitt, K. (2010). The U.S. decennial census: Politics and political science. Annual Review of Political Science, 13(1), 237–254.

  35. Raman, B. (2012). The rhetoric of transparency and its reality: Transparent territories, opaque power and empowerment. The Journal of Community Informatics 8(2). March 5, 2013.

  36. Rawls, J. (2005). Political liberalism (Expanded ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

  37. Rich, S. (2012). Palo Alto, Calif., to launch open data initiative. Government Technology. March 12, 2013.

  38. Saitta, E. (2012). Not only must data sovereignty trump open data, but we need active pro-social countermeasures—a data justice movement. @Dymaxion. March 25, 2013.

  39. Schechner, S., & Fleisher, L. (2014). EU Invites Google, Microsoft to Discuss ‘Right to Be Forgotten’. The Wall Street Journal. July 17, 2014.

  40. Scherer, M. (2012). Obama wins: How Chicago’s data-driven campaign triumphed. Time Swampland. March 13, 2013.

  41. Schönberger, V, & Cukier, K. (2013). Big data excerpt: How mike flowers revolutionized New York’s building inspections. Slate Magazine. March 8, 2013.

  42. Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  43. Shilton, K. (2009). Four billion little brothers? Privacy, mobile phones, and ubiquitous data collection. 7(7). March 19, 2013.

  44. Shklar, J. N. (1990). The faces of injustice. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  45. Slee, T. (2012). Seeing like a geek. Crooked Timber. March 5, 2013.

  46. Stearns, J. (2012). We need a ‘Truth’ campaign for digital literacy and data tracking. MediaShift. March 14, 2013.

  47. Swartz, A. (2009). Transparency is bunk. Aaron Swartz’s Raw Thought. March 3, 2013.

  48. Swartz, A. (2012). A database of folly. Crooked Timber. March 3, 2013.

  49. Walls, S., & Johnson, J. A. (2011). From beginning to end: The transformation of individualism in classical liberalism. Chicago, Illinois: SSRN.

  50. Williams, Malcolm. (2010). Can we measure homelessness? A critical evaluation of ‘Capture–Recapture’. Methodological Innovations Online, 5(2), 49–59.

  51. Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  52. Zenk, S. N., Schulz, A. J., Israel, B. A., James, S. A., Bao, S., & Wilson, M. L. (2005). Neighborhood Racial Composition, Neighborhood Poverty, and the Spatial Accessibility of Supermarkets in Metropolitan Detroit. American Journal of Public Health, 95(4), 660–667.

Download references


This paper has benefitted greatly from discussions among Brian C. Bailey, Angela Carrico, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Evelyn Cruz, Michael Dover, Angeles Eames, Charles Graessle, Bettina Hansel, Luanne Holden, Evan Misshula, Dale Pietrzak, Laura Snelson, and Vanim Zetreus, and the anonymous reviewers.

Author information

Correspondence to Jeffrey Alan Johnson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Johnson, J.A. From open data to information justice. Ethics Inf Technol 16, 263–274 (2014) doi:10.1007/s10676-014-9351-8

Download citation


  • Open data
  • Social justice
  • Constructivism
  • Data pluralism