During the Beyond Media journalism conference last Thursday evening, the researchers involved in a study of what the Dutch term as ‘zorgcowboys’ (care cowboys, as in rogue caregivers) received the Stuiveling Open Data Award (SODA). As internet pioneer Marleen Stikker says, it is time to regain sovereignty over our data. “People think that technology is neutral.”

The award-winning project is an initiative of Pointer, Reporter Radio and Follow the Money. They used open data from the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (VWS) to uncover large-scale fraud in the healthcare system. The research led to internal investigations within several municipalities. The jury praised the methodology used by the applicants, explains jury member as well as chairman of the Netherlands Court of Audit, Arno Visser. “The data used is open. The work method is transparent and traceable and offers room for discussion and other interpretations. This is crucial for proper social debate.”

By the people, for the people

The prize (20,000 euros) is awarded each year by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK). It is named after Saskia Stuiveling, the former president of the Netherlands Court of Audit. She was an advocate for the use of open data within government. “Public sector information belongs to the public. By the people, for the people“, as Visser states. “The whole of society benefits from open data. It leads to surprising insights and a lively public debate.”

Paranoia confirmed

According to Marleen Stikker, member of the jury and speaker at the conference, the pursuit of more open data fits in with the struggle for a more transparent society. “Even with more open data, we are still saddled with other problems, such as algorithms. We no longer feel comfortable on online platforms.” Among other things, Stikker is the founder of the research institute Waag Society and was one of the founders of the accessible internet as we know it today in the Netherlands. “Several revelations, such as those surrounding Snowden and Cambridge Analytica, have confirmed our right to be paranoid. This goes beyond privacy; it’s about regaining our sovereignty. Because do we actually understand the ways in which we are being manipulated online?”

Technology is not neutral

Stikker hopes that people will think about their online behaviour more. “It’s actually quite absurd: we find it important that our products are protected in supermarkets and pharmacies, but we don’t think about the safety issues of the apps that we install. The problem is that many people think that technology is neutral. But the ethics are part of the creative process. And that is monopolized by large companies. We need systems in place to ensure that those companies are not able to misuse our data.”

Beyond Media

The prize was awarded during Beyond Media, a conference on innovation in journalism at Tilburg’s LocHal. The event was organized by MindLabs, a joint initiative on the cutting edge of AI and people. Alderman Berend de Vries from Tilburg opened the evening. “The future is being driven by perspectives on technology, not just technology itself,” he underlined. Consequently, the overarching theme was a question of how the professional field can shift the focus more towards the public, rather than technology. It was also discussed how robot journalist PASS could take over ”chores” from journalists, for instance. Innovation Origins previously published an interview about this project with one of the people behind it. You can read that interview here.

Photo: Open State Foundation, Twitter