Development Data: One Step Beyond

Today, Open Development Camp is happening again. I’m part of a panel:

In the last five years much emphasis has been put on the publication of open development data. How useful has this effort been? What have we learned so far? and Which insights did we gain? Theo van de Sande (The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Leonardo Pérez-Aranda (Oxfam Intermón) and Rolf Kleef (Open for Change) will share their insights on this subject and together we will explore what the future has store for open development data.

My contribution to kick off the discussions:

Five years ago we took someone from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Open Government Data Camp in London. The Ministry had just started on the road of open data, still wondering what could happen and how to make it happen. The vibrant energy at that event tipped the scales in favour of organising our own Open Data for Development Camp – which also had lots of energy, and utopian visions of what could happen; or even: should happen.

The wonderful things you could do, if only you had the data…

Back then, we were doing an appeal on your imagination: close your eyes, and dream of dashboards and maybe even 3D interfaces to navigate through landscapes with rivers of data, flowing into oceans of data – it even would rain data.

So here we are now, our 5th annual Open Development Camp, and we see wonderful data in the wild, and data and transparency standards: IATI, OCDS, EITI, HXL… Even the UN is talking about a data revolution, and in positive terms, no less.

So we have data now. Wonderful things should happen. Are they? What would be the one step beyond?

I think it will be one step on each of three fronts. So maybe close your eyes again, and imagine…

One step is technical

Those of you who were on the internet before the world wide web started, may remember the wonderful world of hypertext systems: gopher, WAIS, Veronica. Every institution would have one or more of these, to make information available and link it to others – but it was hard to set up, and each system worked slightly different, somewhat in isolation.

Then a guy called Tim developed the protocols and standards that we now know as the world wide web. We ended up with one killer app, the “browser”, that would let us access all the information and surf from one institution to the other; and providing your own information became a lot easier too.

Right now, we have a similar plethora of standards and platforms, and they all have their own applications. And with poor links between the data sets or even the data standards. Just recently, the Joined-up Data Alliance was launched, to address that.

So I’d put my money on someone, maybe another guy called Tim, to come up with a “connected development standard” that will pave the way to a single “browser” to access data and other information in a seamless experience.

The second step beyond is organisational

The data we have now is mainly put out there by data-lovers, often harvested from various sources in their own organisation, and put together with effort.

This is now starting to change, and especially in smaller and medium-sized organisations.

One director of such an organisation really sketched it very well: until now, our information systems were mainly set up to provide information to donors; we want our new information system to be designed around our own primary process: what we do.

This means that data will be used more within an organisation, and that is crucial to drive the quality and completeness of the data that is published.

In open source software, a saying is: many eyeballs make all bugs shallow. If enough people look at your code, errors will be detected and removed earlier.

In open data it is the same. The many eyes will be mostly those of your colleagues and your partners: they will notice mistakes and omissions, because they will use the data.

The front-runners will have an advantage in identifying new opportunities for projects, funding and collaboration. Having a strong data practice will also help in writing funding proposals, reporting, and learning.

The downside is that the barrier to entry in a donor and development world will be higher.

We need that “data browser” I mentioned earlier to make it easier to participate.

That brings me to the third step: intentional

Your mission, vision, goals

Please try not to become a data-driven organisation! Use data as part of your process, yes, but if you find yourself just mining data, you’re in the extractives industry.

You will be embracing the scary bits of surveillance, you will be using weapons of mass detection. You will have “collateral damage”.

So make sure you not only have an open data policy, but also a responsible data policy – take a look at Oxfam for instance.

It took time to make the world wide web and social media part of campaigning. I went to the Ecampaigning Forum for years, and in the beginning the conversation was about how to get the “comms department” to look at “online” as a serious platform.

The cynical me says that that changed when online donations became tangible, shown very well with Obama’s first election campaign in 2008. Maybe an advantage in finding funding opportunities will help here. “Comms” knows enough of data to drive their fundraising process, but telling a good story using data, is still in its infancy.

Or maybe something else needs to happen first.

I’m still looking a lot of online open data porn: attempts to make sexy visualisations with naked charts and maps. Or even those dreadful things called infographics…

We need “social data”, data that you want to be friends with, data with a life, a story, a background, aspirations. As someone suggested: dance your data!

Maybe we even need an “open data dating” platform: something that’s intended to be the start of a relation.

With a seamless “browser” (step 1), and quality data (step 2), meaningful data should be our third step beyond.


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