4th IODC

Blog IODC 2016
Madrid. October 6-7, 2016


Scaling up the open data revolution: It will be social

September 28, 2016 by Fabrizio Scrollini1

Fabrizio Scrollini is the Research Coordinator of the Latin American Open Data Initiative. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chairman of DATA, an Uruguayan based NGO working on transparency, open data, and human development. As an academic Fabrizio is interested in accountability institutions, access to information, transparency, and open data.

Latin Americans will celebrate the fourth edition of AbrelatamCondatos in Colombia in November 2016. The Latin American community evolved from a small gathering in Montevideo in 2013 to consolidating the open data field in the region. As the region matures, the early enthusiasm for the killer app, or the mantra publish it and they will come” keeps fading away. This is good news, as techno-utopia gives room to proper and complex engagement with the key regional challenges.

abrelatam-condatos 2016

Updates on the Latin American open data agenda

Governments are in fact releasing more open data. Some of them even have policies for this and are fairly progressive. A group of organizations used open data coming from governments to build services that improved peoples lives. The Latin American Open Data Initiative (Iniciativa Latinoamericana por los Datos Abiertos, ILDA) research has shown that with limited government involvement it is possible to build standards and create new apps, such as the case of respiraciudad.org to understand air quality in Mexico City.  ILDA’s research also shows that when governments are involved there are more chances for significant impact, as demonstrated by the atuservicio case.

ILDA’s research shows the potential of open data in cities, public services, shared challenges (e.g., vector transmitted diseases), and good governance. Further, a group of researchers and advocates showed the way to train and assist people to use data to address social challenges; take for instance the framework ILDA is  exploring  for open data as an open educational resource, developing open data competencies for civic education.

Governments organized themselves to address the current demand and set up a group in the context of the Organization of American States. In 2010 this situation would have been difficult to predict (or imagine). Governments opening up data, engaging with the public, and co-creating services is something fairly recent, when taking into account the short history of this movement. In such a short time frame the movement achieved a lot.

Unfortunately, releasing open government data is not enough. Some open data portals are just a façade of openness. If a government puts up just a few datasets and calls this an open data policy, is certainly not sufficient. On the other hand, if the government puts up a lot of datasets in open data formats but if people are unable to use them, this is also not sufficient. The field needs to get better at including people with less technical skills to understand the value of open data.

Hackathons could be a good idea (albeit, increasingly their allure is wearing off) if these activities help to build a diverse community of practice around a topic, which then is able to follow-up building solutions and engaging a wider group of actors. Finally, if people’s life or work could be under threat for using data (as has been the case of some data journalists), then the field still has serious issues to address. I argue that Latin America needs to look seriously into three things:

  • basic institutions,
  • priorities, and
  • inclusion.

What is next for the Latin American open data agenda?

In 2011, I wrote a very obscure paper about open data as a web institution in the making. By 2016 the ground rules for the release and use of open  data are often not very clear. It does not qualify as an “institutionalized” or “given” behaviour by governments around the global north or the global south. Experiences such as the African Data consensus and the Open Data Charter offer a way to address this concern. A few governments use their current right to information framework to address the release of open data, while others have improved it by including open formats as part of their proactive transparency duty. Countries should consider the adoption of rules that establish clearly which data is public and reusable. In Latin America a progressive group of countries, cities, and regions already adopted the Charter as a guide for their open data policies.

The open data field needs coordinated action to address development challenges. Resources are limited, meaning actors in this field need to prioritize. In the Latin American case, open data to fight corruption, improve public services, and promote the inclusion of women and excluded minorities seems like a reasonable way forward, according to regional priorities. The field needs to set up the basic living infrastructure that will allow the ebb and flow of data  among actors, increasing quality, quantity, and use of data. Open standards, infomediaries grounded in the specific fields and open tools (as in open source software) are essential for scaling up open data-driven initiatives. How to scale open data initiatives in a sustainable and inclusive way? This is a question ILDA is looking forward to answering.

Finally, if the data revolution is going to deliver change (and not just spreadsheets for computer screens in the global north), it needs to be inclusive. This applies to several areas in this field.

Fellow researchers from the GovLab at NYU rightly noted the need for a common framework to assess progress and  address serious issues in the way research is carried out. My contribution to this regard is that we also need to think increasingly about including a generation of researchers from the global south to address these challenges and provide alternative views about the use (and potential abuse) of open data.

Further, our research agenda should evolve. Governments, civil society, and the private sector may need to explore new ways to partner, fostering collaboration. Co-production of public services offers great potential and yet is still a practice largely unexplored. Global north based institutions in all sectors may also need to adjust their practices, to fully include global south partners.

The field needs to build capacities and a diverse leadership to take advantage OF opportunities, considering the value of context and local actors.While there is room for basic common standardization in some areas, it is extremely unlikely that what works in Norway will work in Ethiopia. To adapt, adjust, and innovate we need leaders. Leaders in this space need to evolve beyond traditional “techie profiles” to include other areas and profiles. Crucially, we need more women on board. To support this diverse leadership across Latin America to scale up open data driven projects, is part of what ILDA is set out to do, in the near future.

I have previously argued that it could be very difficult (in the short run) to reach a world of frictionless data. A world where every dataset could be standardized and would be interconnected with little intermediation. It may even not be desirable. To create social and economic value from  open data, I argue that we need communities working on specific issues, releasing and using data. Its the people and the process that yields value, not data per-se. If the revolution is going to deliver value in an inclusive and sustainable way, it cannot be left to  portals, APIs, and a few engineers to do it. It has to be a social endeavour enabled by new technological means.

Talking about the Latin American open data agenda at IODC 2016

At the upcoming edition of the IODC, myself and Maurice McNaughton will be facilitating the Regional Talk on Latin America and the Caribbean (details here). Though the open data agenda in this region has come a long way since the last edition of the IODC in 2015, there are many pressing discussion topics to explore with regards to this region, such as scaling up the open data-driven initiatives, setting up ground rules for governing open data, and delivering inclusive innovation. In the Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Talk, we hope to engage a select group of panelist and the public in an open discussion to explore these topics.

Should you be interested in further engaging in sessions or activities pertaining to open data and this region, the following pre-events, sessions, and activities will also be relevant:

One comment

  • Juan Mora

    September 29, 2016 at 15:27

    Fabrizio, congratulations on the work you’re performing in order to build a real open data movement in Latin America; however, it is sad to see, like you mention in the article, that some of our countries (I’m a data scientist from Colombia) are underestimating the importance of this movement, and are only creating “empty shell” portals that give the impression of openness, while avoiding the real issue of standardization in the data, publishing useful information and using open data to guarantee transparency and equity. I also feel that the gap in digital access in some of our countries is a great stopper for this movement (low level of Wi-Fi access in low income population), that actually needs to be address before or at the same time as governments procure for better and more robust data sets.


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