Taking open data offline (and back again)
It seems that often when we imagine all the fantastic possibilities of open data, we forget how many people live in remote, rural areas (or urban areas with poor infrastructure) where there is no broadband.
I spent last week at the International Open Government Data Conference (IOGDC), put on by Data.gov, the World Bank Open Data Initiative and theOpen Development Technology Alliance. For a full overview, watch some of the presentations and read the liveblog. A point made by several presenters and panelists is that the field has advanced quite a bit in terms of getting data open, and that what really matters now is what people are doing with the data to improve and/or change things.
One of the keynoters, David Eaves, for example, commented “the conferences we organize have got to talk less and less about how to get data open and have to start talking more about how do we use data to drive public policy objectives. I’m hoping the next International Open Government Data Conference will have an increasing number of presentations by citizens, non-profits and other outsiders [who] are using open data to drive their agenda, and how public servants are using open data strategically to drive to a[n] outcome.”
There were some great anecdotal examples throughout the conference of how open data are having impact, especially in 4 key areas:
- economic growth/entrepreneurship
- transparency, accountability and governance
- improved resource allocation and provision of services
- connecting data dots and telling stories the public needs to know
There was also quite a bit of recognition that we need more evidence to back up the anecdotal success stories told around open data, and that it’s difficult to trace all the impact that open data are having because of the multiple and unintended impacts.
On the other hand, the question was raised: “is open data part of the public’s right to information“? Because if we conceive of open data as a right, the framework and conceptualization change as do, perhaps, the measures of success.
Several panelists mentioned some of the big challenges around engaging citizens to use open data for social change, especially in areas with less resources and low access to the Internet.
If one of the key next steps is engaging citizens in using open data, we all need to think more about how to overcome barriers like language, literacy, who owns and accesses devices, low education levels, low capacity to interpret data, information literacy, power and culture, apathy, lack of incentive and motivation for citizen engagement, and poor capacity of duty bearers/governments to respond to citizen demand. (For more on some of these common challenges and approaches to addressing them, see 15 thoughts on good governance programming with youth.)
On the last day of IOGDC we had the opportunity to suggest our own topics during Open Space. I suggested the topic “Taking Open Data Offline” because it seems that often when we imagine all the fantastic possibilities of open data,we forget how many people live in remote, rural areas (or urban areas with poor infrastructure) where there is no broadband and where many of the above-mentioned barriers are very high. (See a Storified summary of our conversation here: #IOGDCoffline.)
The solutions most often mentioned for getting data into the hands of ordinary citizens are Internet and mobile apps. Sometimes when I’m around open data folks, I do a double take because the common understanding of ‘infomediary’ is ‘the developer making the mobile app’. This seems to ignore that, as Jim Hendler noted during the IOGDC pre-conference, some 75% of the world’s population is still offline.
We need to expand the notion of ‘infomediary’ in these discussions to think about the range of people, media, organizations and institutions who can help close the gap between big data and the average person, both in terms of getting open data out to the public in digestible ways and in terms of connecting local knowledge, information needs, feedback and opinions of citizens back to big data. There will need to be a wide range of infomediaries using a number of different communication tools and channels in order to really make open data accessible and useful.
Though things are changing, the majority of folks in the world don’t yet have smart phones. In a sense, the ‘most marginalized’ could be defined as ‘those who don’t have mobile phones.’ And even people who do have phones may not choose to spend their scarce resources to access open data. Data that is available online may be in English or one of only a few major languages. Most people in most of the world don’t purchase data packages, they buy pre-paid air time. The majority don’t have a constant connection to the cloud but rather rely on intermittent Internet access, if at all.
In addition, in areas where education levels are low or data interpretation skills are not strong, people may not have the skills to make use of open data found online. So other communications tools, channels and methods need to be considered for making open data accessible to the broader public via different kinds of intermediaries and infomediaries, multi-direction information sharing channels, feedback loops and combinations of online/offline communication. People may even need support formulating the questions they want answered by open data, considering that open data can be a very abstract concept for those who are not familiar with the Internet and the use of data for critical analysis.
Some great ideas on how to use SMS in open data and open government and accountability work exist, such as Huduma, UReport, I Paid A Bribe, and more. Others are doing really smart thinking about how to transform open data into engaging media for a general audience through beautiful graphics that allow for deep analysis and comparison and that tell compelling stories that allow for a personal connection.
We need to think more, however, about how we can adapt these ideas to offline settings, how to learn from approaches and methods that have been around since the pre-Internet days, and how to successfully blend online-offline tools and contexts for a more inclusive reach and, one hopes, a wider and broader impact.
‘Popular Education’ and ‘Communication for Development (C4D)’ are two fields the open data movement could learn from in terms of including more remote or ‘marginalized’ populations in local, national and global conversations that may be generated through opening up data.
I remember being on a 10-hour ride to Accra one time from the Upper West Region of Ghana. The driver was listening to talk radio in a local language. At one point, someone was reading out a list. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but I could tell the list contained names of communities and districts. The list-reading went on for quite a long time. At one point, the driver cheered and pumped his fist. I asked what he was happy about and he explained that they were reading the list of where the government would be constructing schools and assigning teachers in the next year. His community was going to get a secondary school, and his children would not have to travel far now to continue their education. Radio is still one of the best tools for sharing information. Radio can be combined with activities like ‘Listening Clubs’ where groups gather to listen and discuss. Integrating SMS or call-in options make it possible for radio stations to interact more dynamically with listeners. Tools likeFrontlineSMS Radio allow tracking, measuring and visualization of listener feedback.
I lived in El Salvador for the 1990s. Long and complicated Peace Accords were signed in 1992 after 12 years of civil war. A huge effort was made to ‘popularize’ the contents of the Peace Accords so that the whole country would know what the agreements were and so that people could hold the different entities accountable for implementing them. The contents of the Peace Accords were shared via comics, radio, public service announcements, and a number of other media that were adapted to different audiences. Local NGOs worked hard to educate the affected populations on the rights they could legally claim stemming from the Accords and to provide support in doing so.
When the Civil War ended in Guatemala a few years later, the same thing happened. Guatemala, however had the additional complication of 22 indigenous languages. Grassroots ‘popular education’ approaches in multiple languages were used by various groups across the country in an effort to ensure that no one was left out, to help develop ‘critical conscience’ and critical thinking around the implementation of the Peace Accords, and to involve the public in the work around the Truth Commission, which investigated allegations of human rights violations during the war and opened them to the public as part of the reconciliation process. Latin America (thanks to Paolo Freire and others) has a long history of ’popular education’ approaches and methods that can be tapped into and linked with open data. Open data can be every bit as complicated as the legalistic contents of the Peace Accords and it is likely that data that is eventually opened will link with issues (lack of political participation, land ownership patterns, corruption, political favoritism, poor accountability and widespread marginalization) that were the cause of conflict in past decades.
The Mural of the People / O Mural do Povo from Verdade in Mozambique. “The marvelous Mozambican public will attribute each year the ‘Made in Frelimo Oscar of Incompetence’… The 2012 candidates are…”
In Mozambique, 75% of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. Newspapers costing between 45 and 75 cents are considered a luxury. The 20,000 issues of the free and widely circulated Verdade Newspaper, which comes out once a week, reach an estimated 400,000 people in Maputo and a few other cities as they are read and passed around to be re-read. Verdade reaches an additional audience via Facebook,Twitter and YouTube, and a ‘Mural of the People’ where the public can participate and contribute their thoughts and opinions old-school style — on a public chalkboard. The above February 7, 2012, mural, for example, encouraged the population to vote in the ‘Incompetence Oscars – Made in Frelimo [the current government party]‘. Candidates for an Incompetence Oscar included the “Minister of Unfinished Public Works.” (More about Verdade here.) This combination of online and offline tools helps spread news and generate opinion and conversation on government performance and accountability.
Social accountability tools like community scorecards, participatory budget advocacy, social audits, participatory video, participatory theater and community mapping have all been used successfully in accountability and governance work and would be more appropriate tools in some cases than Internet and mobile apps to generate citizen engagement around open data. Combining new ICTs together with these well-established approaches can help take open data offline and bring community knowledge and opinions online, so that open data is not strictly a top-down thing and so that community knowledge and processes can be aggregated, added to or connected back to open data sets and more widely shared via the Internet (keeping in mind a community’s right also to not have their data shared).
A smart combination of information and communication tools – whether Internet, mobile apps, posters, print media, murals, song, drama, face-to-face, radio, video, comics, community bulletin boards, open community fora or others – and a bottom-up, consultative, ‘popular education’ approach to open data could really help open data reach a wider group of citizens and equip them not only with information but with a variety of channels through which to participate more broadly in the definition of the right questions to ask and a wider skill set to use open data to question power and push for more accountability and positive social change.
Linda Raftree has worked at the intersection of community development, participatory media, rights-based approaches and new information and communication technologies over the past 15 years, and currently works for Plan International. Follow her on Twitter: @meowtree.