Testing, learning and adapting

A year in the life of the Open Data Charter team

By Ania Calderon

Developing an annual report for our Hewlett grant served as a chance for our team to reflect on our impact to date and identify new challenges that may come in the future. In developing this report we went through a reflections exercise at a time when I was preparing to go on maternity leave and we were welcoming our newest member, Nati Carfi.

We asked ourselves the following three questions that helped us weave a common understanding of what we have learnt and what surprised us along the way:

  1. What headline insights do we have from our first strategic plan — of testing assumptions through a series of quick win projects?
  2. What challenges do we envisage in implementing our current strategy in the coming year?
  3. What key piece of advice would we give to someone starting out where we were one year ago?

The lessons on the delivery of the projects we set out to test last year reinforced our thinking that a Publish with Purpose approach can deliver more than “publish and they will come”. We also identified some challenges that the evolution of the open data field may face at a time when privacy concerns have made headline news and there is a sense that commitments to government transparency are backsliding. These are reflected in our four top insights:

Global advocacy can reap more benefits if greater emphasis is placed on how commitments are integrated into culture and practice. The Charter is increasingly shaping open data policies around the world, but the road to impact can be slow and is often exposed to shifting political winds. People on the ground, whether they are in government, civil society or beneficiaries, need to be part of this collaborative journey. Building sustainable policies that create lasting change can start with high level political will but need to be followed by smarter ways to advocate for change, including building ownership across constituencies, laying the foundations for transformative legislation and delivering results that resonate with the needs and demands of people.

Purpose driven release of data should help guide how governments are becoming open by default. Open data projects have been most successful at delivering impact when they are focused on solving problems people care about — from improving health service delivery to making elections run better. This does not contradict or replace the need for an ‘open by default’ approach, where data is opened unless there is a good reason to justify it staying closed. Neither does it negate the need to ensure that a core set of globally recognised infrastructure data is opened by governments — including for example geospatial, demographic and procurement data. Publishing with purpose means prioritisation of data release should be based on demand for data from citizens, CSOs and other public sector actors who can use it.

A shift towards more problem-focused open data work risks being undermined by existing gaps in the data value chain that connects data to action. Our work this year with the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) showed that connecting data to impact requires the interaction of multiple actors, systems and processes — from data collection methods, to capacity of data users, to institutions who can respond and deliver accountability. It is not feasible for one organisation to be doing it all — achieving impact requires a systemic approach across the sector. This means action and investments across the broader data governance infrastructure are needed to ensure openness guides how we collect, use and share data, including transparency about the data we should safeguard and protect.

Being open about how we deliver our work helped us to be more collaborative, learning-oriented and reflective, but it took prioritisation of limited resources. Taking time to reflect, evaluate and share lessons learnt when you are in the midst of delivering work is a challenge, but it helps a team to be reflective and analytical, and to keep the community you collaborate with engaged in what you are doing.

Developing reports for funders offer an opportunity to take stock, draw on evidence and discuss improvements. Yet as data advocate organisations we also need to find more systematic ways to measure our impact so that, following Beckett, we are better placed to “Try again. Fail again. And fail better.”.

To learn more about these lessons and how they are informing our work see our full report here.