Local Insights for Global Action

Reflections from Open Data Meetup for COVID-19 in New Zealand

Open Data Charter
Jul 8, 2020 · 5 min read
Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

by Paul Stone

In a collaboration on high-value open data in a pandemic, the Open Data Charter and the OECD have made a call to action on governments around the world to connect with their communities and find out the needs they have for data during this time of pandemic.

We have published guidance to help with organising open data meetups along with a framework to guide small breakout group discussions to capture people’s insights and needs.

Meetups now underway

New Zealand has been the first country to respond and hold a meetup. They leveraged their existing open data meetup communities in 4 cities (via the Meetup.com platform) and joined with another data meetup group called NZ DataOps, which consisted of data scientists or data engineers. Every single attendee lived through a national lockdown that has impacted them in some way. Among them there were parents, volunteers, business owners or employees, teachers, and sport coaches. Some are or know of others who have health conditions or disabilities that make them vulnerable. There were also immigrants and some who were out of work or on reduced wages. Everyone attended because they are interested in data and know of its potential to make a difference when it’s open and trustworthy.

We had 33 participants plus facilitators and a meeting administrator, and formed 6 breakout sessions that rotated between three themes with 20 minutes on each one, covering:

  1. Tracking spread of disease and health sector capacity
  2. Understanding government actions
  3. Identifying impacts on our communities

During the discussion, people were asked to call upon their experiences in their own neighbourhoods, community groups and workplaces to raise what questions arose for them or the people around them, what made people anxious, and whom they thought needed help. Then to think about what data they needed to respond, and how they would use the data and why. Facilitators prompted conversation as needed or ensured the discussion points got noted in the spreadsheet.

Local insights for global action

Why should your government consider conducting an Open COVID-19 Data Meetup?

Through these meetups you will not only gather important information to help shape new global norms, but you are likely to gain useful insights that you can act on locally. And let’s not underestimate the value of connecting with your data user community and building on those relationships. As more of these meetups occur around the world we expect to see some themes and issues that will be common to everyone, but we also expect to see some differences.

Issues that have hit the media about the government’s response will come up, so top of mind in New Zealand at the time of the meetup was border control. People wanted to see more transparency, and more detailed data, about capacity and controls at the border — what hotels were being used for quarantine, testing at border, monitoring of isolation compliance and exemptions given.

During the meetup you will discover stories about those who are struggling and missing out on help because there is something blocking their access to it. For example, during the New Zealand meetup we heard from Deborah Lemon and her charity Navigate Your Way helping people trapped due to their temporary visas expiring. Due to the travel ban and cancellation of flights people could not return to their home country, but due to the status of their visa, they couldn’t secure employment, in the meantime they still have to keep paying for food and rent to keep a roof over their head. Adding to their plight was the challenge of navigating government services to deal with the system with limited English. There are social services like Navigate Your Way seeking to help people in this situation but the lack of data on how many people with expired visas, where in the country they are, and what languages they speak is making the job difficult.

Another testimony was of people concerned about elderly or vulnerable people that no-one is aware of. The New Zealand Police work with a charity called Neighbourhood Support to manage community groups called “Neighbourhood Watch”. These groups are led locally to keep people in touch and look out for each other’s safety, especially in times of crisis. However, vulnerable people that don’t live in an active neighbourhood watch group could be struggling unseen, with no-one to check-in on them. At the meetup it was suggested that access to data about where these groups are active would help narrow down where to check on residents that may need help.

We learned where data was helpful, and where it could be improved, like time-series data being preferred over daily snapshots for example. Or more detail about where tests are carried out, not just how many, but were people tested at the border, in isolation, or in my part of town?

The Stats NZ COVID-19 Data Portal was really appreciated, making available a range of disaggregated health, social and economic indicators for download. The more frequent releases, daily or weekly in some cases, were also acknowledged as good practice. Even the explanation that the usual quality assurance isn’t being applied to releases was appreciated, on the premise that timely, imperfect data was of more value than slow perfect data.

Gaps in data and access

Here is a brief summary of some key learnings from the Meetup:

  • Better data about visas due to expire including ethnic breakdown so that people trapped can be better supported would be useful.
  • Data about where Neighbourhood Watch communities are active would help identify gaps where people needing help might not be noticed.
  • The path to legally accessing commercial data to help needs to be made clear ahead of a crisis.
  • The release of data like economic indicators much more frequently has been appreciated — accepting that it may not be perfect, but some data is much better than none.
  • Releasing data as time-series rather than separate daily snapshots would make it easier and quicker to reuse.
  • Social media and search data can be used to gauge shifting public sentiment.
  • The lack of any centralised civic engagement platform reduced capacity to clarify some messaging.
  • More transparency about the capacity of border control needed, such as hotels for quarantine, testing at border, monitoring of isolation compliance and exemptions given.

Final reflection

Reflecting on the meetup, I am left with one pleasant, yet unexpected surprise. I have been talking with many open government professionals around the world during this crisis, and I’ve observed distrust in government rise, and in particular concern over where the money is going.

In the New Zealand meetup, people were more concerned about their neighbours who were unintentionally disadvantaged in some way. This platform of trust has given New Zealanders a significant advantage for recovery and I now realise how lucky we are.

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Towards a culture of open and responsible data use by governments and citizens.