I’m currently on a three-week trip researching cultures of open data innovation in South America. What follows is cross-posted from the research blog for the project.
We’re two days into our on-the-ground research here in Santiago, Chile, and we’ve already conducted three interviews with prominent figures in the open data community. Each of our interviewees represented a different sector of Chilean society, giving us a really useful cross-section of perspectives on the open data scene here.
Two days ago, we spoke to Luis Bajana, the founder of ‘Reciclia en linea’, a community recycling platform which relies on open government data to gauge its success. Luis gave us a fascinating insight into his background as a computer science student and his journey through the open source and open data communities, first in his native Ecuador and then Chile.
We also spoke to Hannah Back Pyo , who offered the perspective of someone working in the media industry, and how open data has allowed new forms of journalistic innovation. Finally, yesterday we spoke to representatives of Chile’s open government unit, who coordinate the release of open data by other government departments, and promote the use of this data by civil society groups.
We won’t go into the individual conversations just yet (not least because there were too many interesting things to try to summarise here!) but despite the diversity of our interviewees, several themes are already beginning to stick out.
One theme is legal. Chile’s landmark Transparency Law, enacted in 2009, is a lens through which open data is perceived in the country. The law contains both active and passive principles for different kinds of data: some information, such as government salaries, must be put online regularly, whereas the passive principle allows for freedom of information requests from citizens for other data. These legally enshrined rights and responsibilities have become something of an insurance policy for open data efforts, inspiring confidence that where data isn’t open, it can be made open upon request.
Yet while this law offers a strong foundation of transparency, ironically it may have made some aspects of open data innovation harder to achieve. The fact that most data is passively rather than actively available means that in practice, having to ask for data – a process which typically takes at least a month – can stymie rapid innovation, as Luis Bajana pointed out. In addition, government will not open data if not asked to, and people will not ask for it because they don’t know they can get it. The cycle therefore, can last forever unless and until the general public become better informed. The directive of then-President Sebastian Pinera in 2011 mandated the publication of data sets may have had a similar effect, serving to draw the distinction between data that is merely available and data that is genuinely accessible. On this point, Helen Back Pyo noted that much ‘data journalism’ effectively involves repackaging data that is already available – as infographics, for example – rather than more dense cross-data analysis.
Yet for all the impact of these large-scale, nationwide laws and directives, at the other end of the scale we have also been struck by the role of individuals – or ‘champions’, as we have tentatively titled them – who serve to facilitate and coordinate the efforts of the wider city, region or even country. We hope to provide case studies of many of these individuals over the coming weeks, but it’s important to note their importance at the outset.
Finally, a reflection on our central research questions: what drives people to get involved with creating impact from open data, and how can we measure this impact? Inevitably these are the hardest questions to answer and will take a far wider pool of perspectives than we’ve gathered so far. But on the question of motivation, we’re hearing a lot about the conduits into the open data community – whether this is through the open source or start-up communities, for example – and the specific tools which are used to get people engaged, for example hackathons.
On the measurement question, an interesting divide is developing between the economic and social dimensions of impact: we might tentatively speculate that government bodies may place more emphasis on the economic benefits of open data innovation, whereas activist communities emphasise the social effects, e.g. the number of users ultimately affected by innovation, as Luis suggested. And of course, the two questions are linked: the motivation for getting involved in the open data community in the first place likely affects perceptions of what counts as success.
To reiterate: these are early thoughts based on only a handful of interviews so far. But we hope that with more interviews in more contexts, Chilean and beyond – including a focus group this afternoon with the Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente (who have kindly hosted us so far) we hope to develop these preliminary thoughts into clearer insights and ultimately policy proposals.