Mobilise! — Assembling an Open Data Community

What do communities look like? How do they organise? Who gets to participate? What constraints do they face?

Hello everyone! If you haven’t been following our blog, we recently organised the Open & Shut Conference, where we brought together a range of experts and open data practitioners to discuss the challenges and opportunities posed by open data in closed societies.

This article — the second in a series of posts collecting our thoughts from the conference — is a summary of some of the insights from our contributors, who articulated some best practices and sound strategies for nurturing new open data communities.

The First Challenge — Defining Our Terms

First off, we recognised that it was important to define clearly what we’re talking about: are we specifically talking about ‘communities’ or do we actually mean networks? And if we do really want to build open data communities, then it’s essential to have a clear idea of exactly what it is we’re trying to assemble.

After a little discussion, we quickly recognised that communities are different from networks in plenty of ways. By ‘networks’, we typically mean larger groups of people that are connected in largely transactional relationships. The fact that these relationships are grounded in mutual self-interest means that — unlike communities, which are cemented in a set of shared values or objectives — networks are typically value-neutral.

Although networks offer some benefits, communities lend themselves to more organic forms of collaboration and exchange, being bound by sets of shared guiding principles that can motivate members to action. In this way, they are more than just networks united by value systems, and instead constitute powerful vehicles for collective action.

Because they are value-driven, communities can sustain informal conversations and exchanges about ideas — something that is sometimes challenging to achieve in low-engagement networks where members are driven by personal interest.

This ongoing engagement is core to a community’s success. Communities are most effectively brought together when trying to address a challenge, but they require some level of sustained contribution from members (unlike networks, where passivity has few negative consequences). Because these discussions need to be sparked and guided, we agreed that communities ultimately end up quite structured — if not formally, then at least socially.

There will always be thought leaders in communities, and there will always be those who are less shy about bringing their projects to the community to seek collaborations. In the same way, there will always be those who are more passive participants. This isn’t a problem — we said that an 80/20 split of ‘lurkers’ to leaders is enough to keep a community functional.

But the question remained: how do we bring all these people together in the first place?

Self-Starter?– Setting Up New Communities

With our terms established, we tried to pull together a few core questions to guide our discussion. We asked ourselves where communities come from, and questioned whether it’s possible to sustain an active collaborative community only through online spaces.

Our discussion led us to the conclusion that getting people in the same room is important for getting those conversations started — that was one of the main purposes of the Open & Shut Conference, after all! But we all acknowledged that constant communication and common action was key to sustaining the momentum that builds out of conferences like these, necessitating some form of online engagement (at least for geographically dispersed communities like ours).

Of course every conference these days seems to end with a mailing list, or a Twitter link, or some other hook to ‘keep the conversation going’. But how often does this really happen?

We thought it one of the common barriers to this happening is that potential members don’t get a sense of how they can contribute to the community, or how the community is planning to serve them. Therefore, it’s crucial to organise communities around a clearly defined set of expectations. There’s an onus on the community coordinators to explain what communities can offer potential members, and to outline some ways that potential members might be expected to give back.

The Community Roundtable’s Community Maturity Model was also flagged up as a useful resource that can help us think about the structured phases of community development, and to analyse the evolution of nascent communities/networks — examining their development and leadership strategies, culture, governance mechanisms, and content production processes.

The Community Roundtable’s Community Maturity Model

We’re very much in the first stages of community-building here with Open & Shut, but we’re trying to work to a point where our community members are contributing posts and ideas to this blog (and yes, that includes you!). But we’re under no illusions that it’s easy to reach that point.

So what are the kinds of challenges we’re running into? And what other community-building hurdles do we have to keep an eye out for in the not-too-distant future?

It’s The Taking Part That Counts — Building the Community

Participants all agreed that open data practitioners too often work in silos. It is hard to break into different spaces — be it across regions or sectors. Let’s consider the use of open data for exposing anti-corruption as one example: one incredibly complex issue that touches on a whole range of sub-issues which vary across national contexts, and involve countless organisations and stakeholders within government and without.

On a day-to-day basis, for example, there’s no need for anti-corruption open data practitioners in Colombia to share experiences with people doing the same thing in Indonesia. Instead, they’re engaging on a day-to-day basis with their own civil society and other local stakeholders. So one of the challenges we’re aggressively trying to tackle in Open & Shut is to shatter these silos and bring open data practitioners together from all sorts of typically closed contexts.

There’s also a risk around organisations posing as leaders in these efforts to bring people together, however. If organisations claim leadership roles, then organisations’ territorial instincts may limit openness and collaboration. As such, it’s crucial that the early phases of community development are informed by broad-based participation, and that stakeholders are made to feel that they actually have a stake in the initiative.

To ensure that communities feel broad-based and consensual, community leaders must go out and seek the participation of otherwise marginal, or isolated voices. Sometimes, active organisations will need to be proactive in ‘recruiting’ community members. After all, not all organisations are great at organically engaging with others, yet still have experiences and skills to share, and would benefit from being pulled into the conversation.

What kinds of hurdles have you run into when trying to bring together a new community? Or from a different angle, what tricky questions have you encountered when trying to engage in online communities?

Supermodels — Looking At Some Successful Open Data Communities

We had no doubts that having a strong theory of change is an important component of any successful open data community. The following examples are a few instances of successful engagements with open data communities.

One successful model for building an active community is to empower participants with a useful platform that addresses their needs. A great example of a platform-rooted community is the Humanitarian Data Exchange, which equips users with the tools and practices to share humanitarian data. It has managed to bring together several communities together across countries like Nepal, Columbia and Kenya in a remarkably short period of time.

Another example at our table was Mozilla, which is a very effective example of a successful open source community. It unites a community around shared values of openness, as well as a range of tools and detailed best practices for community members, and is at its heart a diverse and inclusive gathering of people around shared values.

The Latin American open data community was also highlighted as a strong one — it’s active, open to exchange, grounded in real-world interactions, and is super social! Part of this was put down to the region having a shared (and open!) culture, and a common language. However, there were some questions about whether this active, engaged community was actually coming out with lots of effective outputs, perhaps owing to a lack of established community structures.

Getting The Conversation Started — Our Insights

There are no hard-and-fast rules to community building. Sometimes a top-down approach is appropriate (particularly early in the community-building process!), while at other times grassroots effort should be enough to sustain them.

So although we came out of the conference lacking in quick-fix solutions to the challenge of community-building, there are two important lessons we’d like to share.

First off, we all agreed that it’s important to offer community members a sense of collective ownership over knowledge and outputs. Once you establish a set of common principles early on — making sure community members understand what they stand to gain, and what they could be able to contribute as members — you have sown the seeds of an open data community that could achieve the change they all seek.

Secondly, and rather simply — successful communities require an investment of time, resources, and energy in order to create spaces for discussion and engagement. No amount of funding can be a proxy for that (although of course it can help!). Join together around a set of clear values, start talking about shared challenges, and break out of those silos!


Open & Shut is a project from the Small Media team. Small Media is an organisation working to support freedom of information in closed societies, and developed the Iran Open Data portal.

Cover image by skp, story edited by Bronwen Robertzadeh, Harsha Devulapalli and Tom Ormson.