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4 min

The importance of diversity in conversations, reflections from IODC18

Multicolored insects.
Written by
Pyrou Chung
Published on
November 4, 2018

Diversity shapes the world we live in. We all see the world through different lenses that have been shaped and reshaped by our individual life experiences. Differences of opinions, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours accent our lives. I am fascinated by this diversity of lenses that people apply to view the world, and the thought processes that have shaped these lenses.

Multicolored insects.

My own lens has been shaped by years of working in development based in Southeast Asia. I also have a deep connection with the region — I was born here, though not raised, and have returned full circle to live and work. I now find myself in the open data world, where the traditional “development” lens I have become familiar with is not necessarily a priority of the “open” agenda. Because I view myself as Asian by culture but not nature, I view the development sector, and now my work in open data, through this lens.

At IODC18, there was a large contingent of attendees from developed nations, presenting some ideas and concepts that were inapplicable, given the context I come from. For example, discussions about data providers assumed governments to be the primary providers, which is simply not the case within the Lower Mekong Region.¹ In the Lower Mekong, governments do not release data and information for the public good. Only Thailand and Vietnam have access to information laws, but these do not actually offer citizens freedoms to access and use data and information. In fact, in Vietnam’s case, the law theoretically permits access to government and state documents, but limits this in the case of “state secrets”, which is broadly defined.² There are other limits as well, which take away from what might have been broader public access to information.

People presenting on a stage.
Statistics of participants per country, closing session at IODC18.

In one session I attended, ‘People’s rights and data: the data empowerment debate’, the audience was asked to participate in a spectrogram where by you physically move to a different location in the room to indicate agreement, disagreement or neutrality in response to the statement; “do you feel that stronger legislative frameworks would increase good governance?” I responded immediately with clear disagreement, in contrast to the majority of the room. One man was asked to explain his positive response, and his answer highlighted his Northern European lens. I countered his argument with the example of Vietnam and Cambodia, where laws are not necessarily written well nor with the intention to protect people and their rights. He re-positioned himself in the room closer to me. Afterwards, he expressed to me that he had never considered the possibility that there could have been a different way in which laws could be used as a tool for injustice. It had been beyond the scope of his lens and emphasised the importance of having diverse experiences in the room, in this case my lens from Southeast Asia.

The highlights of the conference for me were the diversity in conversations, and the ability to share lessons learnt and experiences. It was a unique pleasure to have worked with Lenka Kovacova and the thought contributions she brought from the Czech Republic, as well as my other companions in trying to assess the presence of open data for women across the Mekong during the Open Heroines Do-A-Thon. These women, coming from different backgrounds and levels of experience with the Mekong region, offered me a different perspective on how to address gender inclusiveness in civic tech and open data — a challenging and nascent issue that Open Development Mekong hopes to service in the immediate future. If you would like to contribute to the GitHub page for this ongoing work, please do so here.

I was extremely excited to have been invited to present in two IODC18 sessions, ‘Open data in Asia’ and ‘Open data in the global south’. Both sessions were important in allowing me to showcase open data achievements in the Mekong and highlight the increasing constraints and limitations upon freedoms of expressions currently hindering the proliferation of open data. Unfortunately, the predominant focus and location of the conference acted as barriers to attracting both a broad audience from Asia and those with an interest in the Asian open data movement. While this was disappointing, it did provide an opportunity to network with the other Asian actors working in open data who were present, and also opened up conversations on lessons learnt that could be exchanged between southern continents. It also led to the expansion and engagement of the Open Development Mekong network in the emerging development of the Open Data for Development Asia Regional Hub, which would not have been facilitated without actors from Asia converging in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

No matter how innocuous a conversation may seem, or how far a conversant’s lens is from one’s own views, everyone has something to offer to the conversation. Often it is necessary to look through another lens to learn something new. Supporting diversity is an important aspect of the open data movement, and I am happy that Open Development Mekong can be a part of this conversation with the support of the Open Data for Development Network.

[1] The Lower Mekong Region is defined by the flow of the Mekong River which originates in China, the upper Mekong and flows through the lower Mekong countries of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and fans out into the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. Myanmar is included in Open Development Initiatives definition of the lower Mekong region.

[2] Vietnam law and legal forum. “New Law on Access to Information” 07 November, 2016.

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