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Chronicles of an Open affair: International Open Data Conference 2018

Group of women holding posters.
Written by
Jamila Farouk Jawula
Published on
October 10, 2018

Recently, I attended the International Open Data Conference (IODC) at the Usina del Arte in Buenos Aires, Argentina. IODC is a biannual meeting of the international open data community to learn, share, plan and collaborate on the future of open data. The main conference was from September 27–28 and pre-conference events/activities on the 24–26. In this writing, I’ll share my experience and learning outcomes.

To give a brief background, my first encounter with the term “Open Data” was at the Africa Open Data Conference (AODC) in 2017 where I was invited to give a spotlight presentation on Developers In Vogue under the theme “Celebrating Women and Girls in ICT.” Although the concept of “Open” wasn’t entirely new to me, AODC echoed and stirred up my interest to dig further.

A stage with some people on it.

Interestingly, as I begun looking into the term “Open” and what it entails, I have crossed paths with people who have helped shape and guide my steps. One of such amazing people is David Opoku who has been very instrumental in this little “Open voyage” of mine by connecting me to other individuals, opportunities and learning materials. And of such vital connections is Open Heroines.

Open Heroines is a worldwide network of the voices of women in open government, open data and civic tech. In line with the network’s core mission and support from the Hewlett Foundation and Development Gateway, myself and other heroines received a travel grant to partake in this year’s IODC.

The main pre-conference session I attended was the Open Heroines’ Gender Doathon. A Doathon is a day of “do-ing” or working on the various tasks needed to complete a project. Activities range from report writing, desk research, creating marketing content, software development and much more depending on the type of project. For the Open Heroines Doathon, five different open projects on gender were submitted which gave participants options to choose from and work on areas where their interests and skills lie most.

Some women discussing in a meeting.
Doathon de-brief

I spent my time working with the Feminist Open Government Initiative (FOGO) team on a project to gather and analyze data on the global gender index of countries worldwide. My main “do-ing” was to surf the web and gather recent data on the global gender indexes. After some minutes of searching, I came across a report that contained the data as at 2017. However, the data was in PDF format hence it couldn’t be used therein. After what seemed like a “long time” of thinking and deliberation, I finally found a way to convert the PDF format style data into excel. Then I cleaned and finally got the data onto the shared excel sheet everyone was contributing to.

Highlights of some conference sessions I participated in:

The Open Data Sprint: Drawing from Design Thinking methodology, this session challenged participants to explore how open data products can be developed through the “Idea, Build, Launch and Learn” process. Although an hour wasn’t enough time to fully comprehend and implement the process, the main purpose of this session was to build a napkin prototype of the idea. The facilitators gave us a crash course on the design process and thereafter, we (participants) split up into small teams of 3–6 individuals.

After a quick 5 minutes of idea brainstorming, we used the Idea-Matrix model to measure the impact and feasibility of all the generated ideas. From the model, my team settled on building an open data product to tackle the problem of high motor accidents rates in Argentina. In the end our product was to develop a data portal with a geolocation functionality. The portal would provide relevant data based on which bad roads will be re-engineered, raising awareness in accident prone areas and increasing publicity on safe driving. The data would also be accessible to all citizens to make other recommendations and analysis on how the problem could be best solved.

Data for the people: Making data accessible through visualization and data literacy training — The main takeaway from this session was how to convey insights from data through visualizations and make it more relevant to the majority of the population especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The first caution was, to truly achieve impact and change, organizations should avoid dumping large and complex PDFs on the web as the main tool for disseminating information. This is because, besides the barrier of falling rates of attention span, low literacy levels and low internet penetration, the average internet cost per month in the region is high making it impractical that these PDFs will be read by a large number of the population. The following points summarize the recommendations made:

a. Always use short narratives. 300–400 words

b. Avoid complex words / vocab, aim for less than 100 to 180 unique words

c. Use comparisons and metaphors in the local context

d. Understand the audience and find proxies to communicate data

e. Focus on usage and relevance i.e. how people use and translate data

Is Open Data working for women? — This was an interesting session that explored how open data projects were affecting and supporting the lives of women. There were four mini-discussion groups on research works in different areas. My group discussed a project on how Open Data was changing the lives of women living in rural areas in Indonesia. One success story of that project is how high rates of domestic violence were brought to the attention of the government. Based on this, the government allocated more resources and increased mechanisms and avenues for women to report such issues and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Open Washing: Open washing, simply put, is when organizations or individuals portray themselves or their activities to be in line with “Open tenets” but are not. This session discussed how and why individuals and organizations are involved in open washing. A few minutes into the session, the discussion took a philosophical turn in trying to give a working definition to the term Open Washing. Could we brand an activity as Open Washing even if the intention was not to? Does requests from Donors and Funders pressurize organizations and individuals to involve in Open Washing? What can we do as an Open community to curb and stop Open Washing activities? Do we name and shame? Is Open Washing a question of ethics? Who defines what is ethical and what’s not?

After three days of packed activities from session to session, it was time to explore the city more. I took a tour downtown Palermo and the Japanese Gardens in Buenos Aires.

Open Data is based on the foundation that everyone should have access to data as all activities thrive on it. This conference has enlightened and broadened my perspective on how open data has the power to transform lives, build trust and develop a transparent culture.

A women looking at a lake.
Jamila at the Japanese Gardens in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Additionally, participating in this conference has been key in growing my network especially in the role I play as a community builder and lead coordinator of a quarterly Data Community meetup organized by Developers In Vogue (and David as one of our resource persons).

I have learned how, as a community, we can be more open about the work we do to achieve more impact and more importantly create a safe space for more women to be part of the Open discussion.

It was also a good opportunity to explore the city of Buenos Aires and catch up with people I met from the AODC in 2017.

With the next IODC (2020) happening in Kenya, I’m excited and looking forward to facilitating a session and sharing my experiences with a wider audience.

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