[Spotlight] Together we stand

How to build resilient open data communities from the ground up

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Photo by Vitaliy Paykov on Unsplash

By Agus De Luca and Flor Serale

It has been 10 years since conversations about open data began. We now have a more solid community that carry conversations forward regarding how to incorporate open data principles into diverse policy areas. Alongside these conversations are new challenges arising: machine learning, artificial intelligence, civic space threats and ongoing concerns about privacy.

Moderated by our wonderful Co-Chair, Flor Serale, we invited Ana Sofia Ruiz (ILDA), Jean-Noé Landry (Open North) and Poncelet Ileleji (Jokkolabs Banjul) to our latest Implementation Working Group’s meeting to inspire us on their work that build and strengthen existing open data communities and s have an honest discussion on the common challenges they face in their daily work.

Where to start? Tips for building communities

Although the conversation is quite different now than what it was back then, Jean-Noé stressed his view of the need to keep in touch and continuously learn from each other. He shared his Top 10 tips for building a sustainable (open) data community:

  1. Open data is political (which we hadn’t thought about originally). It’s crucial to define your strategic goal and stick to it: your tactic may change, but not your strategy. Then ask yourself: Am I the right person to advance that strategy? Do I have the correct team in place to achieve my goal? Am I a credible leader for the community? How can I be more reflective?
  2. Mobilize, organize, document: think of your community goals in terms of a campaign. What resources do you have access to? People, funding, time. How can you build momentum towards your goal?
  3. Identify communities as field building opportunities. Articulate value propositions in different types of problem areas and translate our experience and expertise into the different topics (climate change, housing, poverty, smart city, anti-corruption, etc.). Meet your community where they are: where/when do they meet? Don’t expect people to come to you. Make yourself relevant, helpful and resourceful.
  4. Pursue “open by default” AND -not OR- “publish with purpose”. The latter is not a shortcut for the prior one. They are not mutually exclusive. Governments need to do both with a prioritization lens: Publish with purpose enables you to galvanize your communities efforts and make sure you pick data that is workable and impactful to generate positive community outcomes. First generate buy in, then go bigger for open by default. Small steps that yield quick wins.
  5. Understand the city context. It takes time to unpack and understand the local dynamics (eg. champions, bottlenecks, risks, policy, plans, priorities, who’s blocking, who’s influential, etc). Frame your community goal in terms of your interest and values and compare them with those of government. How do they overlap? Reinforce common goals. Help the city claim credit for its leadership.
  6. Stress democratic values. Make the case with examples that strengthen democratic fundamentals such as trust, engagement, legitimacy. Examples tell a story. Team-up with data journalists to get broader coverage.
  7. Talk about open data to solve specific problems, and avoid focusing on opening up data as a goal in itself. Try speaking about open data without saying ‘open data’. Some audiences want to talk about specifics. Others aren’t data literate and it might create a blockage.
  8. Adopt a collaborative and competitive approach. Learn from other communities, recognize success, take on the role of adapting an example to your own community needs. Ask for help. Maybe the people who work on the initiative that you found relevant can speak about their lessons learned. Governments like to be number 1: help them get there as an ally. Without compromising your non-partisan approach, which is important to be able to work with any government and public administration.
  9. Have a vision behind the strategy. Think of your concrete and achievable goal and manageable steps to get there. How does open data fit in a bold vision? Keep people motivated. If we want to achieve interoperability in 5 years, what kind of change do we need today, in 6 months, in 2 years? What is the actionable roadmap to that vision?
  10. The Overton window. Identify the spectrum and diversity of perspectives in your community. Ensure that everyone has a voice, even more if it’s different than yours. Work in the possible: some may have a radicalized position and not work with the government, others might want to. It’s important to recognize this and build trust in your approach with your allies in the community and internally within government. What is the path to the possible?

Communities must include public officials and policymakers

We all know that there are key data champions within government that advocate for open data policies to advance and to hold governments accountableBut they can’t do this alone. They need political support as well as horizontal community support from other areas and agencies to get things done. We need to instil a culture of openness within the public sector. ILDA could not agree more with this and Ana Sofia shared with us their experience in hosting open data workshops to public officials in Costa Rica, Uruguay and Mendoza (Argentina).

They found that there were people who started to work together and show their superiors the benefits of collaborating with each other. They even connected them with the broader Latin American open data community (through Abrelatam and ConDatos) to explore how their experiences could be transferred to other contexts, what worked and what didn’t. And this also helps the remaining challenge of political change: having public officials committed to the topic and taking ownership of their open data policy, helps to keep activities going even when government changes.

What happened next? Mendoza public officials created their own open government network within other agencies and subnational governments, and Agesic, the digital government agency in Uruguay, incorporated the course as part of its regular activities, and now they teach to other officials.

ILDA is now dreaming bigger and is focusing on how to build a network of public officials working on machine learning and how to implement these technologies in the public sector to solve public problems (learn more about the Empatía project).

Searching for sustainability

Poncelet shared with the IWG his experience in building local data communities in Gambia and the challenges of this in developing countries. As part of his work at Jokkolabs in recent months, Poncelet worked with young people from councils in rural areas around a critical topic: How to use open data to promote good governance. Building grassroots in municipal councils had many implementation challenges that became severe with the pandemic.

Some lessons learned from this experience include focusing on data collection training; investing time in setting a strategy to work on the field of interest; using existing resources; and finding a way to engage with external actors (such as national agencies, that usually have the data and capacities) to make things happen.

The good, the bad and the ugly

After our three guests ender their presentation, as a group we had some time to reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly part of building communities:

The good: Having a shared set of values with the community is a plus - — don’t just make it about yourself. Problems can’t be solved alone. Although you may not share the world view with those you need to work with, it’s necessary to find ways to collaborate. Innovation might come from the weirdest experiences you didn’t think of. But it takes time. It’s two steps forward, one step back.

The bad: Things will change and so your plans will have to change too. It’s crucial to be resilient and adaptive, and have a change mindset for being open to different experiences. Think about what futures are possible, what might happen and how we should prepare for that. Building future scenarios and several paths forward for sustainability where people can invest themselves is a good approach to address these challenges.

The ugly: Competition for money. Organizations and initiatives might fight for resources, so it’s key to have clear responsibilities and tasks from the beginning, and work together. Besides, priorities from donors may change which directly affects the sustainability of the community. As said, having a change mindset and being adaptive is key in these times.

Back to basics

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Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

In order to have a really collaborative and open community, humility is key. There are many new governments, researchers, activists and journalists joining the conversation every day, and if we really want to involve those working on thematic areas we need to have the basic conversations over and over again, without being afraid of doing so.

Data literacy skills need to be enhanced as well. To expand the open data community, we need to teach, promote, collaborate and share techniques, resources and knowledge so as to involve new people and organizations.

Thanks to our speakers and for all the participants that joined this fruitful discussion. Please share your thoughts with info@opendatacharter.org or reach out to us if you want to join the next IWG session to your experience!

Thanks very much to Paul Stone, Cat Cortes and Nati Carfi for their inspiring input to this blog.

Written by

Collaborating with governments and organisations to open up data for pay parity, climate action and combatting corruption.

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