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Archive for the ‘open data’ Category

This is a cross-post by Duncan Edwards from the Institute of Development Studies. Duncan and I collaborated on some sessions for the Open Development stream at September’s Open Knowledge Conference, and we are working on a few posts to sum up what we discussed there and highlight some lingering thoughts on open development and open data. This post was originally published on the Open Knowledge Foundation blog on October 21, 2013

by Duncan Edwards

I’ve had a lingering feeling of unease that things were not quite right in the world of open development and ICT4D (Information and communication technology for development), so at September’s Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva I took advantage of the presence of some of the world’s top practitioners in these two areas to explore the question: How does “openness” really effect change within development?

Inspiration for the session came from a number of conversations I’ve had over the last few years. My co-conspirator/co-organiser of the OKCon side event “Reality check: Ethics and Risk in Open Development,” Linda Raftree, had also been feeling uncomfortable with the framing of many open development projects, assumptions being made about how “openness + ICTs = development outcomes,” and a concern that risks and privacy were not being adequately considered. We had been wondering whether the claims made by Open Development enthusiasts were substantiated by any demonstrable impact. For some reason, as soon as you introduce the words “open data” and “ICT,” good practice in development gets thrown out the window in the excitement to reach “the solution”.

A common narrative in many “open” development projects goes along the lines of “provide access to data/information –> some magic occurs –> we see positive change.” In essence, because of the newness of this field, we only know what we THINK happens, we don’t know what REALLY happens because there is a paucity of documentation and evidence.

It’s problematic that we often use the terms data, information, and knowledge interchangeably, because:
Data is NOT knowledge.
Data is NOT information.
Information is NOT knowledge.
Knowledge IS what you know. It’s the result of information you’ve consumed, your education, your culture, beliefs, religion, experience – it’s intertwined with the society within which you live.

Data cake metaphor developed by Mark Johnstone.

Understanding and thinking through how we get from the “openness” of data, to how this affects how and what people think, and consequently how they MIGHT act, is critical in whether “open” actually has any additional impact.

At Wednesday’s session, panellist Matthew Smith from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) talked about the commonalities across various open initiatives. Matthew argued that a larger Theory of Change (ToC) around how ‘open’ leads to change on a number of levels could allow practitioners to draw out common points. The basic theory we see in open initiatives is “put information out, get a feedback loop going, see change happen.” But open development can be sliced in many ways, and we tend to work in silos when talking about openness. We have open educational resources, open data, open government, open science, etc. We apply ideas and theories of openness in a number of domains but we are not learning across these domains.

We explored the theories of change underpinning two active programmes that incorporate a certain amount of “openness” in their logic. Simon Colmer from the Knowledge Services department at the Institute of Development Studies outlined his department’s theory of change of how research evidence can help support decision-making in development policy-making and practice. Erik Nijland from HIVOS presented elements of the theory of change that underpins the Making All Voices Count programme, which looks to increase the links between citizens and governments to improve public services and deepen democracy. Both of these ToCs assume that because data/information is accessible, people will use it within their decision-making processes.

They also both assume that intermediaries play a critical role in analysis, translation, interpretation, and contextualisation of data and information to ensure that decision makers (whether citizens, policy actors, or development practitioners) are able to make use of it. Although access is theoretically open, in practice even mediated access is not equal – so how might this play out in respect to marginalised communities and individuals?

What neither ToC really does is unpack who these intermediaries are. What are their politics? What are their drivers for mediating data and information? What is the effect of this? A common assumption is that intermediaries are somehow neutral and unbiased – does this assumption really hold true?

What many open data initiatives do not consider is what happens after people are able to access and internalise open data and information. How do people act once they know something? As Vanessa Herringshaw from the Transparency and Accountability Initiative said in the “Raising the Bar for ambition and quality in OGP” session, “We know what transparency should look like but things are a lot less clear on the accountability end of things”.

There are a lot of unanswered questions. Do citizens have the agency to take action? Who holds power? What kind of action is appropriate or desirable? Who is listening? And if they are listening, do they care?

Linda finished up the panel by raising some questions around the assumptions that people make decisions based on information rather than on emotion, and that there is a homogeneous “public” or “community” that is waiting for data/information upon which to base their opinions and actions.

So as a final thought, here’s my (perhaps clumsy) 2013 update on Gil Scott Heron’s 1970 song “The Revolution will not be televised”:

“The revolution will NOT be in Open data,
It will NOT be in hackathons, data dives, and mobile apps,
It will NOT be broadcast on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,
It will NOT be live-streamed, podcast, and available on catch-up
The revolution will not be televised”

Heron’s point, which holds true today, was that “the revolution” or change, starts in the head. We need to think carefully about how we get far beyond access to data.

Look out for a second post coming soon on Theories of Change in Open, and a third post on ethics and risk in open data and open development.

And if you’re interested in joining the conversation, \sign up to our Open Development mailing list.

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Bruce Lee explains why many open data and technology-led initiatives go wrong.

(See minute 1.14).

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This is a cross-post from Tessie San Martin, CEO of Plan International USA. Tessie’s original post is published on the Plan International USA blogFor more on the status of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in the US and information on which donors sit where on the Transparency Index, visit Publish What You Fund.

Over 40 governments, along with UN organizations and the World Bank, have committed to a common standard and time schedule for publishing aid information under the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI).  There are high expectations for this initiative. The ultimate objective is to increase the effectiveness of donor assistance, making aid work for those whom we are trying to help and contributing to accelerated development outcomes on the ground. IATI is good news for increased accountability, can help improve coordination, and provides a space for engaging donors, communities, governments and the general public in a broader development dialogue.

Secretary of State Clinton signed on behalf of the US Government on November 2011. While US engagement has been very welcomed, US Government performance in terms of actually executing IATI has left much to be desired.  Publish What You Fund, an organization helping to ensure governments are held to their initial aid transparency commitments, ranked only one out of six agencies (MCC) in the ‘fair’ category in terms of execution. Recently, organizations like Oxfam and ONE have rightly questioned the US Government’s commitment and progress, and exhorted the Obama administration to make full compliance with the IATI standard a priority.

But with all the attention focused on how USG is performing, what are INGOs doing about IATI?  After all, governments can only open access to the data they have. Official development assistance is an increasingly smaller proportion of the entire aid flows, so having INGOs — particularly, and at the very least, the largest global INGOs — also committed to this process is vital to the success of the Initiative.

What are INGO’s doing about IATI? The answer is: not much.

Very few INGOs have committed to publishing their information to the IATI standard.  INGOs that have complied are doing so primarily because a donor is requiring it.  For example, DfID, the UK foreign aid agency, has such a requirement and, as a result, the UK has the largest number of INGOs in compliance.  The US Government has not imposed this requirement on US-based INGOs and it is not likely to do so in the future.  It is therefore not surprising that US-based INGOs have not shown much interest in IATI.

This is a lost opportunity for everyone.  Accountability and transparency are as relevant to the private and the non-profit side of development assistance as they are to the public side.

At Plan International, an INGO with offices in almost 70 countries, it is not surprising that the part of our organization making the fastest strides in this area is our office in the United Kingdom.  As an important recipient of DfID money, they were instructed to do so.  In the US, though Plan International USA is not a major recipient of USG funding, we believe that making the investment to comply with IATI reporting format and timelines is good development practice; we are thus committed to publishing to IATI in the next year.  How can we effectively preach transparency and increased accountability to our recipient communities and to the governments with which we are working yet not commit to something as eminently common sensical as uniform formats, comparable data sets and systematic reporting frequencies?

We are not Pollyannaish about the task.  Like all INGOs pondering whether and how to comply with IATI, we have many concerns, including the costs of complying and what it will do to our overhead (and therefore to something like our Charity Navigator) rating.   We have established an internal project code so we can better capture, track and understand the costs involved in this initiative.  And we are evaluating where we draw the line in terms of the size of the projects on which we should be reporting, balancing costs with the desire to maximize disclosure (it is also worth remembering that rating agencies themselves are placing increasing emphasis on transparent reporting, so rating concerns may ultimately support a move towards greater IATI compliance).

As we have moved forward, we have had many issues to address, including privacy concerns, since a fair bit of Plan’s internal documentation was not written with the idea that it would one day be shared with the public.  Publishing some information may pose security risks for minority or political groups being supported.  These situations have been contemplated by IATI already, however, and there are valid exemptions for sensitive data.  We have also learned that there are many resources to help INGOs navigate the IATI compliance waters.  These resources are not well known to US INGOs, and need to be better publicized. Plan in the US, of course, is also benefiting from the research and hard work our UK office has done to comply with DfID’s mandate, allowing us to start off on a strong foundation of organizational experience.

I am convinced that IATI is not just good development practice but also makes good business sense. At the same time, it is worth remembering that IATI is not the entire solution.  IATI is designed to improve upward accountability to donors and taxpayers.  It is not designed explicitly to improve accountability to the children and communities with which we are partnering and whom we serve. And, as the ultimate goal is improved aid effectiveness, data must be accompanied by better information about goals, methodologies and approaches.  We also need to get better at sharing not just successes but failures within our federation and across all development organizations.

Despite all the shortcomings, IATI is a good start.  And as we push the US Government to do better, INGOs need to be pushing themselves to do better as well.

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The February 5 Technology Salon in New York City asked “What are the ethics in participatory digital mapping?” Judging by the packed Salon and long waiting list, many of us are struggling with these questions in our work.

Some of the key ethical points raised at the Salon related to the benefits of open data vs privacy and the desire to do no harm. Others were about whether digital maps are an effective tool in participatory community development or if they are mostly an innovation showcase for donors or a backdrop for individual egos to assert their ‘personal coolness’. The absence of research and ethics protocols for some of these new kinds of data gathering and sharing was also an issue of concern for participants.

During the Salon we were only able to scratch the surface, and we hope to get together soon for a more in-depth session (or maybe 2 or 3 sessions – stay tuned!) to further unpack the ethical issues around participatory digital community mapping.

The points raised by discussants and participants included:

1) Showcasing innovation

Is digital mapping really about communities, or are we really just using communities as a backdrop to showcase our own innovation and coolness or that of our donors?

2) Can you do justice to both process and product?

Maps should be less an “in-out tool“ and more part of a broader program. External agents should be supporting communities to articulate and to be full partners in saying, doing, and knowing what they want to do with maps. Digital mapping may not be better than hand drawn maps, if we consider that the process of mapping is just as or more important than the final product. Hand drawn maps can allow for important discussions to happen while people draw. This seems to happens much less with the digital mapping process, which is more technical, and it happens even less when outside agents are doing the mapping. A hand drawn map can be imbued with meaning in terms of the size, color or placement of objects or borders. Important meaning may be missed when hand drawn maps are replaced with digital ones.

Digital maps, however, can be printed and further enhanced with comments and drawings and discussed in the community, as some noted. And digital maps can lend a sense of professionalism to community members and help them to make a stronger case to authorities and decisions makers. Some participants raised concerns about power relations during mapping processes, and worried that using digital tools could emphasize those.

3) The ethics of wasting people’s time.

Community mapping is difficult. The goal of external agents should be to train local people so that they can be owners of the process and sustain it in the long term. This takes time. Often, however, mapping experts are flown in for a week or two to train community members. They leave people with some knowledge, but not enough to fully manage the mapping process and tools. If people end up only half-trained and without local options to continue training, their time has essentially been wasted. In addition, if young people see the training as a pathway to a highly demanded skill set yet are left partially trained and without access to tools and equipment, they will also feel they have wasted their time.

4) Data extraction

When agencies, academics and mappers come in with their clipboards or their GPS units and conduct the same surveys and studies over and over with the same populations, people’s time is also wasted. Open digital community mapping comes from a viewpoint that an open map and open data are one way to make sure that data that is taken from or created by communities is made available to the communities for their own use and can be accessed by others so that the same data is not collected repeatedly. Though there are privacy concerns around opening data, there is a counter balanced ethical dilemma related to how much time gets wasted by keeping data closed.

5) The (missing) link between data and action

Related to the issue of time wasting is the common issue of a missing link between data collected and/or mapped, action and results. Making a map identifying issues is certainly no guarantee that the government will come and take care of those issues. Maps are a means to an end, but often the end is not clear. What do we really hope the data leads to? What does the community hope for? Mapping can be a flashy technology that brings people to the table, but that is no guarantee that something will happen to resolve the issues the map is aimed at solving.

6) Intermediaries are important

One way to ensure that there is a link between data and action is to identify stakeholders that have the ability to use, understand and re-interpret the data. One case was mentioned where health workers collected data and then wanted to know “What do we do now? How does this affect the work that we do? How do we present this information to community health workers in a way that it is useful to our work?” It’s important to tone the data down and make them understandable to the base population, and to also show them in a way that is useful to people working at local institutions. Each audience will need the data to be visualized or shared in a different, contextually appropriate way if they are going to use the data for decision-making. It’s possible to provide the same data in different ways across different platforms from paper to high tech. The challenge of keeping all the data and the different sharing platforms updated, however, is one that can’t be overlooked.

7) What does informed consent actually mean in today’s world?

There is a viewpoint that data must be open and that locking up data is unethical. On the other hand, there are questions about research ethics and protocols when doing mapping projects and sharing or opening data. Are those who do mapping getting informed consent from people to use or open their data? This is the cornerstone of ethics when doing research with human beings. One must be able to explain and be clear about the risks of this data collection, or it is impossible to get truly informed consent. What consent do community mappers need from other community members if they are opening data or information? What about when people are volunteering their information and self-reporting? What does informed consent mean in those cases? And what needs to be done to ensure that consent is truly informed? How can open data and mapping be explained to those who have not used the Internet before? How can we have informed consent if we cannot promise anyone that their data are really secure? Do we have ethics review boards for these new technological ways of gathering data?

8) Not having community data also has ethical implications

It may seem like time wasting, and there may be privacy and protection questions, but there are are also ethical implications of not having community data. When tools like satellite remote sensing are used to do slum mapping, for example, data are very dehumanized and can lead to sterile decision-making. The data that come from a community itself can make these maps more human and these decisions more humane. But there is a balance between the human/humanizing side and the need to protect. Standards are needed for bringing in community and/or human data in an anonymized way, because there are ethical implications on both ends.

9) The problem with donors….

Big donors are not asking the tough questions, according to some participants. There is a lack of understanding around the meaning, use and value of the data being collected and the utility of maps. “If the data is crap, you’ll have crap GIS and a crap map. If you are just doing a map to do a map, there’s an issue.” There is great incentive from the donor side to show maps and to demonstrate value, because maps are a great photo op, a great visual. But how to go a level down to make a map really useful? Are the M&E folks raising the bar and asking these hard questions? Often from the funder’s perspective, mapping is seen as something that can be done quickly. “Get the map up and the project is done. Voila! And if you can do it in 3 weeks, even better!”

Some participants felt the need for greater donor awareness of these ethical questions because many of them are directly related to funding issues. As one participant noted, whether you coordinate, whether it’s participatory, whether you communicate and share back the information, whether you can do the right thing with the privacy issue — these all depend on what you can convince a donor to fund. Often it’s faster to reinvent the wheel because doing it the right way – coordinating, learning from past efforts, involving the community — takes more time and money. That’s often the hard constraint on these questions of ethics.

Check this link for some resources on the topic, and add yours to the list.

Many thanks to our lead discussants, Robert Banick from the American Red Cross and Erica Hagen from Ground Truth, and to Population Council for hosting us for this month’s Salon!

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up in March. Stay tuned for more information, and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

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Here’s a recap of my panel talk at the Engineers Without Borders, Canada, Annual Policy Forum. (A summary of the wider discussions on Open Government and Community and Economic Development at the Forum is here)

Slide01Open data are having some impact as seen in 4 key areas (according to what I heard at July’s International Open Government Data Conference). These are:

  • 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

Open data should be part of the public’s right to information, not a service that government can decide whether to provide or not. Open government should include open attitudes, open ways of being, not only open data and use of technology. It should be inclusive and seek to engage those who do not normally participate, as well as those who are already active. It should go further than data about public services and also encompass those aspects that may be uncomfortable and politically charged.

Slide04

Opening data is only a first step – and there are still big gaps. ‘Open’ does not automatically mean accessible, useful, relevant or accountable. Although new ICTs offer huge potential, focusing too much on technologies and data can marginalize a range of voices from the current discussion about (and implementation of) open government initiatives and processes. Much about these processes is currently top down and focused at the international and national levels, or sometimes district level. Community level data would be a huge step towards local accountability work

Slide06We can address the gaps. First we need to understand, acknowledge and design for the barriers and/or challenges in each particular environment, including the barriers of ICT access for some groups; e.g:

  • lack of connectivity and electricity
  • cost of devices, cost of connection
  • lack of time and resources to participate
  • low education levels, low capacity to interpret data
  • power and culture, apathy, lack of incentives and motivation, lack of interest and/or fatalism, disempowerment
  • poor capacity and/or lack of interest by duty bearers/governments (or particular individuals within government) to respond to citizen demand for services or transparency/accountability

We also need to support:

  • consultations with and engagement of citizens in different places, different sectors, economic levels, etc., from the very beginning of the open government process
  • better understanding of what is important to citizens and communities
  • generation of awareness and demand, better local ownership, expectations of responsive government
  • champions within local and national government, strengthened capacity and motivation to collect and share data; strengthened coordination
  • space for dialogue and discussion among citizens, communities, civil society organizations and governments

Slide10Government responsiveness matters. A lot. So when working in open government we need to ensure that if there are ways to input and report, that there is also responsiveness, willingness on government side and the right attitude(s) or it will not succeed.

Open Data/Open Government portals are not enough. I’ve heard that donors know more about the open government portal in Kenya than Kenyan NGOs, Kenyan media and Kenyan citizens.  It’s important to work with skilled intermediaries, infomediaries and civil society organizations who have a transparency mandate to achieve bigger picture, social motivation, large-scale awareness and education, and help create demand from public. But these intermediaries need to strive to be as objective and unbiased as possible. If there is no response to citizen demand, the initiative is sunk. You may either go back to nothing, increase apathy, or find people using less peaceful approaches.

Great tech examples exist! But…. how to learn from them, adapt them or combine them to address the aforementioned barriers? Initiatives like Huduma, U-Report, I Paid a Bribe have gotten great press. We heard from Ugandan colleagues at the Open Knowledge Festival that people will use SMS and pay for it when the information they get is relevant; but we still need to think about who is being left out or marginalized and how to engage them.

Slide08We need to also consider age-old (well, 1970s) communication for development (C4D) and ‘educación popular’ approaches. New ICT tools can be added to these in some cases as well. For example, integrating SMS or call-in options make it possible for radio stations to interact more dynamically with listeners. Tools like FrontlineSMS Radio allow tracking, measuring and visualization of listener feedback.  The development of ‘critical consciousness’ and critical thinking should be a key part of these processes.

Existing successful social accountability tools, like community scorecardsparticipatory budget advocacysocial auditsparticipatory videoparticipatory theater and community mapping have all been used successfully in accountability and governance work and may be more appropriate tools in some cases than Internet and mobile apps to generate citizen engagement around open data.

Combining new ICTs 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, ‘educación popular’ approach to open data could 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. Involved and engaged media or “data journalists” can help to bring information to the public and stimulate a culture of more transparency and accountability. Responsiveness and engagement of government and opportunities for open dialogue and discussion among various actors in a society are also key. Community organizing will remain a core aspect of successful civic participation and accountability efforts.

[Photo credits: (1) Phone charging in a community with limited electricity, photo by youth working with the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) program in Senegal; (2) Youth training session during YETAM project Cameroon, photo by me (3) Gaps in open data and open government work, diagram by Liza Douglas, Plan International USA; (4) Local government authority and communities during discussions in Cameroon, photo by me; (5) Youth making a map of their community in Cameroon, photo by Ernest Kunbega]

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policy forum

This past Monday I had the opportunity to join Engineers without Borders (EWB) in Calgary, Canada, at their Annual Policy Forum on Global Development to discuss “How can open government contribute to community and economic development?”

Morning panels covered some examples of open government initiatives from Finland, Ghana and Canada. In the afternoon we heard about some of the challenges with open data, open government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Table discussions followed both of the panels. The group was a mix of Canadian and African government representatives, people from organizations and groups working in different countries on open government and open data initiatives, and young people who are connected with EWB. The session was under Chatham House Rule in order to encourage frank conversation.

Drawing from such documents as the Open Government Partnership’s Open Government Declaration, Harlan Yu and David G. Robinson’s “The New Ambiguity of “Open Government,” Beth Noveck’s What’s in a Name? Open Gov and Good Gov and Nathaniel Heller, A Working Definition of ‘Open Government’, the following definition of Open Government was used to frame the discussions.

EWB Definition of Open Government

Below (in a very-much-longer-than-you-are-supposed-to-write-in-a-blogpost summary) are the highlights and points I found interesting and useful as related to Open Development, Open Data, Open Government and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI)

1.  Participation thresholds need to be as low as possible for people to participate and engage in open government or open data initiatives. You need to understand well what engagement tools are most useful or comfortable for different groups. In some places, to engage the public you can use tools such as etherpad, wiki platforms, google docs, open tools and online collaboration spaces. In other places and with other populations, regardless of what country, you may be more successful with face-to-face methods or with traditional media like television and radio, but these need to be enhanced with different types of feedback methods like phone calls or surveys or going house to house so that your information is not only traveling one way. Community organizing skills are key to this work, regardless of whether the tools are digital or not.

2.  Literacy remains a huge challenge hindering access to information and citizen engagement in holding government accountable in many countries. This is why face-to-face engagement is important, as well as radio and more popular or broad-based communication channels. One participant asked “how can you make open government a rural, rather than an urban only, phenomenon?” This question resonated for participants from all countries.

3.  Language is still a critical issue. Language poses a big challenge for these kinds of initiatives, from the grassroots level to the global level, within and among countries, for citizens, governments, and anyone trying to share or collect data or information. It was noted that all the countries who have published data to IATI are publishing in English. All the IATI Standards are in English, as is the entire support system for IATI. As one participant noted, this begs the question of who the information in IATI is actually designed for and serving, and who are the expected users of it. Open data initiatives should consider the implications of language they publish in, both politically and practically.

4.  Open data can serve to empower the already empowered. As one speaker noted, “the idea that everyone has the potential to make use of open data is simply not true.” Access to digital infrastructure and educational resource may be missing, meaning that many do not have the ability to access, interpret or use data for their own purposes. Governments can also manipulate data and selectively release data that serves their own interests. Some questioned government motives, citing the example of a government that released “data” saying its unemployment rate was 10% when “everyone knew this to be false, and people grumbled but we did not feel empowered to challenge that statement.” Concern was expressed over the lack of an independent body or commission in some countries to oversee open data and open government processes. Some did not trust the government bodies who were currently in charge of collecting and opening information, saying that due to politics, they would never release any information that made their party or their government look bad.

5.  Privacy rights can be exploited if data is opened without data protection laws and effort to build capacity around how to make certain data anonymous. Citizens may also not be aware of what rights are being violated, so this should also be addressed.

6.  Too much open data discussion takes place without a power analysis, as one participant commented, making some of the ideas around open data and open government somewhat naïve. “Those who have the greatest stake will be the most determined to push their point of view and to make sure it prevails.”

7.  Open data needs to become open data 2.0. According to one participant, open data is still mostly one-way information delivery. In some cases there isn’t even any delivery – information is opened on a portal but no one knows it’s there or what it refers to or why it would be useful. When will open data, open government and open aid become more of a dialogue? When will data be released that answers questions that citizens have rather than the government deciding what it will release? The importance of working with community groups to strengthen their capacity to ask questions and build critical consciousness to question the data was emphasized. A counter point was that government is not necessarily there to start collecting information or creating data sets according to public demand. Governments collect certain data to help them function.

8.  Intermediaries working on open government should be careful of real or perceived bias. Non-profits have their own agendas, and ‘open data’ and ‘open information’ is not immune to being interpreted in non-objective ways. Those working on civic engagement initiatives need to be careful that they are not biased in their support for citizen initiatives. One presenter who works on a platform that encourages citizens to be involved in petitioning new laws for contemplation in Parliament said “Our software is open source so that anyone can set up a similar process to compete with us if they feel we are biased towards one or another type of agenda.”

9.  Technology-based engagement tools change who is participating. Whether in Finland, Canada, Ghana or Malawi, it’s critical to think about reaching those who are not active already online, those who are not the typical early adopters. To reach a broader public, one speaker noted “We are going to remote places, doing events in smaller towns and cities to see how people want to influence and take part in this. Making sure the website is accessible and understandable.”

10. Technological platforms are modifying how political parties and democratic processes operate. This may or may not be a good thing. Normally priorities arise and are discussed within political parties. Will people now bypass the party process and use ‘direct democracy’ channels if they are passionate about an issue but do not want to enter into negotiation around it? Will this weaken political processes or longer standing democratic processes? One speaker considered this change to be positive. People are not happy with being able to vote every 4 years and they want opportunities to participate in between elections cycles and direct voice in how priorities are decided. Others questioned whether bypassing official processes can lead to less participation and more apathy overall on national issues. Some questioned whether within fairly long-standing democracies, open data will have any real impact, considering existing levels of apathy and the lack of political participation.

11. Strong information, statistical, monitoring and evaluation systems are critical for open data and open government processes and to ensure more effective management of development results. This is still a challenge for some countries that need to review their mechanisms and improve their tools and processes for data collection and dissemination. If there is no data, or no current data, there is not much point in opening it. In addition, there are capacity and technical competency challenges within institutions in some countries. One participant mentioned a lack of current government geological information about gold and oil deposits that weakens government capacity to negotiate with the private sector extraction industry and ensure partnerships and earnings will contribute to national development. In addition more evidence is needed on the impact, use, and outcomes of open data. At the moment it’s quite difficult to say with any real authority what the outcomes and impact of open data and open government have been.

12. IATI (International Aid Transparency Initiative) needs more partners. Government representatives noted that they are opening their data, but they can only open the data they possess. In order for data on aid to be useful, more data is needed, especially that of NGOs who are implementing programs. Not many NGOs have published their information to the IATI standard at this point. “The really interesting thing will be when we can start mashing up and mapping out the different kinds of information,” as one speaker noted, “for example, this is the goal of the Open Aid Partnership. It will involve combining information from the donor, development indicators from the World Bank, and country information, and this will open up amazing possibilities once this is all geo-coded.” There are reporting challenges related to IATI and open government data, however, because at times countries and NGOs do not see the benefits of reporting – it feels like just one more top-down administrative burden. There are also issues with donor governments reporting their committed intentions and amounts, recipient governments reporting back, and communications with citizens on both sides (donor and recipient countries). One example that was reported to be enjoying some success was the multi-donor budget support initiative in Ghana, where development partners and government work together to establish development indicators and commitments. If the government delivers on the indicators, the development partners will then provide them with the funding. Development partners can also earmark funding to particular areas if there is government agreement.

13. We need more accountability towards ‘beneficiaries’.Currently many of these initiatives are perceived as being focused on donors and donor publics. As one participant noted, “the interesting thing is less about government and more about getting regular people involved in these processes. When you engage the public you’ll engage government leaders in thinking they will need to change to respond to what citizens are asking for.” Another noted that the essential issue is the link between transparency/accountability and citizens and their own governments. In addition, as one participant asked, “How can you strengthen capacity among citizens to ask the right questions about the data that’s being opened?” For example, citizens may ask about the number of schools being built, but not ask about the quality of education being provided. Public education was a strong focus of discussions around citizen engagement during the policy forum.

14. Should citizens be consulted on everything? however, was one big question. The public at large may not understand the ramifications of its own deep misunderstandings on particular issues and may be inputting from a viewpoint that lacks scientific evidence or fact. “It’s one thing to have an opinion about whether your child should be able to drink energy drinks before age 16, it’s another to input about technical programs like the best policy for green energy,” commented one group.

15. Can citizens really have greater participation if government is still in control of data? was another big question. An example was given of an open consultative process that became unwieldy for a local government, which then shut down the consultation process and changed the nature of the documents to ‘administrative’ and therefore no longer open. Others asked why governments pat themselves on the back over being part of the Open Government Partnership yet they do not have Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) or they prosecute those who open data in alternative ways, such as Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz.

16. If citizens don’t get a response from government (or if they don’t like the response, or feel it’s biased or manipulated), apathy and cynicism will increase. It’s important to make sure that ‘open government’ is not just a box that gets ticked off, but rather a long-term change in mentality of those in power and deeper expectations and efforts by citizens for openness and participation in conversations of national importance.

The conclusion was that Open Government is somewhat of a paradox, rooted in aims that are not necessarily new. Open Government strives to enable leaders in their communities to create change and transform their lives and those of people in their communities. It is a complex process that involves many actors and multiple conflicting goals and interests. It’s also something new that we are all learning about and experimenting with, but we are very impatient to know what works and what the impact is. In the room, the feeling was one of ‘radical pragmatism,’ as one participant put it. Open Government is a big idea that represents a big change. It’s something that can transform communities at the global level and there is a great deal of hope and excitement around it. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the challenges associated with it in order to address them and move things forward.

I’ll do a follow up post with the points I made during the panel as this post is clearly way too too long already. Kudos if you are still reading, and a huge thanks to the organizers and participants in the EWB policy forum.

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The November 14, 2012, Technology Salon NYC (TSNYC) focused on ways that ICTs can support work with children who migrate. An earlier post covers the discussion around Population Council’s upcoming ‘Adolescent Girls on the Move’ report. The current post focuses on the strategic use of data visualization for immigration advocacy, based on opening points from Brian Root and Enrique Piracés of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Visualizing the US Detention Network and the transfers between detention centers.

The project

The HRW initiative used data to track and visualize the movement of people through the US immigration detention system after noticing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was moving people very freely without notifying their families or attorneys. HRW was aware of the problem but not its pervasiveness. The team obtained some large data sets from the US government via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. They used the data to track individuals’ routes through the immigration detention system, eventually mapping the whole system out at both aggregate levels and the level of individual. The patterns in the data informed HRW’s advocacy at the state and federal levels. In the process, HRW was able to learn some key lessons on advocacy and the importance of targeting data visualizations to specific advocacy purposes.

Data advocacy and storytelling

The data set HRW obtained included over 5.4 million records of 2.3 million people, with 10-12 variables. The team was able to connect these records to individuals, which helped tell a meaningful story to a broad audience. By mapping out all the US facilities involved and using geo-location to measure the distance that any individual had been transferred, the number of times an individual from Country X in Age Range X was transferred from one facility to another was visible, and patterns could be found. For example, often people on the East Coast were transferred to Texas, where there is a low ratio of immigration lawyers per detainee.

Even though the team had data and good stories to tell with the data, the two were not enough to create change. Human rights are often not high priority for decision makers, but budgeting is; so the team attached a cost to each vector that would allow HRW to tell decision makers how much was being spent for each of these unnecessary transfers.

They were also able to produce aggregated data at the local level. They created a state dashboard so that people could understand the data at the state level, since the detention facilities are state-run. The data highlighted local-level inefficiencies. The local press was then able to tell locally relevant stories, thus generating public opinion around the issue. This is a good example of the importance of moving from data to story telling in order to strengthen advocacy work.

HRW conveyed information and advocated both privately and publicly for change in the system. Their work resulted in the issuing of a new directive in January 2012.

FOIA and the data set

Obtaining data via FOIA acts can be quite difficult if an organization is a known human rights advocate. For others it can be much easier. It is a process of much letter sending and sometimes legal support.

Because FOIA data comes from the source, validation is not a major issue. Publishing methodologies openly helps with validation because others can observe how data are being used. In the case of HRW, data interpretations were shared with the US Government for discussion and refutation. The organization’s strength is in its credibility, thus HRW makes every effort to be conservative with data interpretation before publishing or making any type of statement.

One important issue is knowing what data to ask for and what is possible or available. Phrasing the FOI request to obtain the right data can be a challenge. In addition, sometimes agencies do not know how to generate the requested information from their data systems. Google searches for additional data sets that others have obtained can help. Sites such as CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), which has 20,000 documents open on Scribd, and the Government Attic project, which collects and lists FOI requests, are attempting to consolidate existing FOI information.

The type of information available in the US could help identify which immigration facilities are dealing with the under-18 population and help speculate on the flow of child migrants. Gender and nationality variables could also tell stories about migration in the US. In addition, the data can be used to understand probability: If you are a Mexican male in San Jose, California, what is the likelihood of being detained? Of being deported?

The US Government collects and shares this type of data, however many other countries do not. Currently only 80 countries have FOI laws. Obtaining these large data sets is both a question of whether government ministries are collecting statistics and whether there are legal mechanisms to obtain data and information.

Data parsing

Several steps and tools helped HRW with data parsing. To determine whether data were stable, data were divided by column and reviewed, using a SHELL. Then the data were moved to a database (MySQL), however other programs may be a better choice. A set of programs and scripts was built to analyze the data, and detention facilities were geo-located using GeoNames. The highest quality result was used to move geo-location down to the block level and map all the facilities. Then TileMill and Quantum GIS (QGIS) were used to make maps and ProtoViz (now D3) was used to create data visualizations.

Once the data were there, common variables were noted throughout the different fields and used to group and link information and records to individuals. Many individuals had been in the system multiple times. The team then looked at different ways that the information could be linked. They were able to measure time, distance and the “bounce factor”, eg.., how many times an individual was transferred from one place to the other.

Highlighting problematic cases: One man’s history of transfers.

Key learning:

Remember the goal. Visualization tools are very exciting, and it is easy to be seduced by cool visualizations. It is critical to keep in mind the goal of the project. In the HRW case the goal was to change policy, so the team needed to create visualizations that would specifically lead to policy change. In discussions with the advocacy team, they defined that the visualizations needed to 1) demonstrate the complexity 2) allow people to understand the distance 3) show the vast numbers of people being moved.

Privacy. It is possible to link together individual records and other information to tell a broader story, but one needs to be very careful about this type of information identifying individuals and putting them at risk. For this reason not all information needs to be shared publicly for advocacy purposes. It can be visualized in private conversations with decision makers.

Data and the future

Open data, open source, data visualization, and big data are shaping the world we are embedded in. More and more information is being released, whether through open data, FOIA or information leaks like Wikileaks. Organizations need to begin learning how to use this information in more and better ways.

Many thanks to the Women’s Refugee Commission and the International Rescue Committee for hosting the Salon.

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up soon. Stay tuned for more information, and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

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This post is copied from an email that my colleague Kelly Hawrylyshyn sent to me. Kelly works on disaster risk reduction (DRR) with Plan UK. If you work on DRR and gender, go on, get yourself on the map!

Women and girls make a major contribution to disaster risk reduction and yet their role and involvement often go unacknowledged. In recognition of this gap, the Gender & Disaster Network, the Huairou Commission, Oxfam International and Plan International are facilitating the greater visibility of women and girls as part of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), October 13th, 2012.

Gender inequalities around the world mean that women and girls are most severely affected by disaster. However, they also have significant experience and knowledge to contribute to disaster prevention and to the resilience of communities.

With this in mind, our efforts aim to move beyond portraying women and girls as mere victims of disasters and to provide spaces and opportunities for women and girls to connect and partner freely with local governments and organizations. We aim to showcase how women and girls around the world are carrying out disaster reduction and prevention actions; engaging and leading in climate change awareness activities; taking part in demonstrations and simulations; promoting resilient cities initiatives; and mapping risks.

Using crowdsourcing and crowdmapping tools, we aim to generate greater visibility and recognition of local initiatives by women and girls worldwide for disaster risk reduction.

Visit our map and report your own examples, in advance of the International Day for Disaster Reduction, October 13th, 2012.

We need your help to “put on the map” the numerous research initiatives, media events, publications, training materials, advocacy, workshops, networks/associations, and other activities that are happening and need to be made VISIBLE!

Contributions from both individual women and girls and organizations engaged in DRR are welcomed.

And who knows, you may get to find out about some interesting work taking place in your country, or miles away from you!

Join Us to make visible Women and Girls on the Map!

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OK Festival is in full swing here in Helsinki, and if today is anything like the past two days, it will be full of information and exchange on everything “open.”

A number of us have been working hard to pull together the Open Development Stream, which started yesterday and which followed very nicely on Tuesday’s fantastic series of panels on Transparency and Accountability (with a heavy focus on the Open Government Partnership and Open Data) and the Open Data Journalism and Visualization streams.

Here’s a quick Storify summary of yesterday’s last Open Development session “Taking it Local: 10 ways to make ‘open’ relevant in low resource or marginalized contexts,” It was moderated by Soren Gigler from the World Bank’s Innovation for Governance Team and included superb group of panelists:  David RodriguezMichael Gurstein, Huy Eng, Philip Thigo, and Barbara Birungi.

For the session, my colleagues David and Max Rodriguez from Plan El Salvador did some really great short videos around transparency, internet access, connectivity and related topics and how they are perceived and lived out in rural communities where they are working.

This first video with Marco Rodriguez (he’s also on Twitter), the Sub-Secretary of Transparency for the Government of El Salvador, is just a small example of some of the realities around “open” and accessibility, and the challenges of engaging every day people in some of the initiatives we are talking about here at OK Festival. (Not to mention it and the other videos with Marco and others have a number of fantastic metaphors and soundbites!)

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New technologies are opening up all kinds of possibilities for improving monitoring and evaluation. From on-going feedback and crowd-sourced input to more structured digital data collection, to access to large data sets and improved data visualization, the field is changing quickly.

On August 7, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Community Systems Foundation (CSF) joined up with the Technology Salon NYC for the first in a series of 3 Salons on the use of ICTs in monitoring and evaluating development outcomes. Our lead discussants were: Erica Kochi from UNICEF Innovations; Steven Davenport from Development Gateway and John Toner from CSF.

This particular Salon focused on the use of ICTs for social monitoring (a.k.a. ‘beneficiary feedback loops’) and accountability. Below is a summary of the key points that emerged at the Salon.

1) Monitoring and evaluation is changing

M&E is not only about formal data collection and indicators anymore, one discussant commented, “It’s free form, it contains sentiment.” New ICT tools can help donors and governments plan better. SMS and other social monitoring tools provide an additional element to more formal information sources and can help capture the pulse of the population. Combinations of official data sets with SMS data provide new ways of looking at cross-sections of information. Visualizations and trend analysis can offer combinations of information for decision making. Social monitoring, however, can be a scary thing for large institutions. It can seem too uncontrolled or potentially conflictive. One way to ease into it is through “bounded” crowd-sourcing (eg., working with a defined and more ‘trusted’ subset of the public) until there is comfort with these kinds of feedback mechanisms.

2) People need to be motivated to participate in social monitoring efforts

Building a platform or establishing an SMS response tool is not enough. One key to a successful social monitoring effort is working with existing networks, groups and organizations and doing well-planned and executed outreach, for example, in the newspaper, on the radio and on television. Social monitoring can and should go beyond producing information for a particular project or program. It should create an ongoing dialogue between and among people and institutions, expanding on traditional monitoring efforts and becoming a catalyst for organizations or government to better communicate and engage with the community. SMS feedback loops need to be thought of in terms of a dialogue or a series of questions rather than a one-question survey. “People get really engaged when they are involved in back and forth conversation.” Offering prizes or other kinds of external motivation can spike participation rates but also can create expectations that affect or skew programs in the long run. Sustainable approaches need to be identified early on. Rewards can also lead to false reports and re-registering, and need to be carefully managed.

3) Responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is critical

One way to help motivate individuals to participate in social monitoring is for governments or institutions to show that citizen/participant feedback elicits a response (eg., better delivery of public services).  “Incentives are good,” said one discussant, “But at the core, if you get interactive with users, you will start to see the responses. Then you’ll have a targeted group that you can turn to.” Responsiveness can be an issue, however if there is limited government or institutional interest, resourcing or capacity, so it’s important to work on both sides of the equation so that demand does not outstrip response capacity. Monitoring the responsiveness to citizen/participant feedback is also important. “Was there a response promised? Did it happen? Has it been verified? What was the quality of it?”

4) Privacy and protection are always a concern

Salon participants brought up concerns about privacy and protection, especially for more sensitive issues that can put those who provide feedback at risk. There are a number of good practices in the IT world for keeping data itself private, for example presenting it in aggregate form, only releasing certain data, and setting up controls over who can access different levels of data. However with crowd-sourcing or incident mapping there can be serious concerns for those who report or provide feedback. Program managers need to have a very good handle on the potential risks involved or they can cause unintended harm to participants. Consulting with participants to better understand the context is a good idea.

5) Inclusion needs to be purposeful

Getting a representative response via SMS-based feedback or other social monitoring tools is not always easy. Mandatory ratios of male and female, age groups or other aspects can help ensure better representation. Different districts can be sampled in an effort to ensure overall response is representative. “If not,” commented one presenter, “you’ll just get data from urban males.” Barriers to participation also need consideration, such as language; however, working in multiple languages becomes very complicated very quickly. One participant noted that it is important to monitor whether people from different groups or geographic areas understand survey questions in the same way, and to be able to fine-tune the system as it goes along. A key concern is reaching and including the most vulnerable with these new technologies. “Donors want new technology as a default, but I cannot reach the most excluded with technology right now,” commented a participant.

6) Information should be useful to and used by the community

In addition to ensuring inclusion of individuals and groups, communities need to be involved in the entire process. “We need to be sure we are not just extracting information,” mentioned one participant. Organizations should be asking: What information does the community want? How can they get it themselves or from us? How can we help communities to collect the information they need on their own or provide them with local, sustainable support to do so?

7) Be sure to use the right tools for the job

Character limitation can be an issue with SMS. Decision tree models, where one question prompts another question that takes the user down a variety of paths, are one way around the character limit. SMS is not good for incredibly in-depth surveys however; it is good for breadth not depth. It’s important to use SMS and other digital tools for what they are good for. Paper can often be a better tool, and there is no shame in using it. Discussants emphasized that one shouldn’t underestimate the challenges in working with Telco operators and making short codes. Building the SMS network infrastructure takes months. Social media is on the rise, so how do you channel that into the M&E conversation?

8) Broader evaluative questions need to be established for these initiatives

The purpose of including ICT in different initiatives needs to be clear. Goals and evaluative questions need to be established. Teams need to work together because no one person is likely to have the programmatic, ICT and evaluation skills needed for a successfully implemented and well-documented project. Programs that include ICTs need better documentation and evaluation overall, including cost-benefit analyses and comparative analyses with other potential tools that could be used for these and similar processes.

9) Technology is not automatically cheaper and easier

These processes remain very iterative; they are not ‘automated’ processes. Initial surveys can only show patterns. What is more interesting is back-and-forth dialogue with participants. As one discussant noted, staff still spend a lot of time combing through data and responses to find patterns and nuances within the details. There is still a cost to these projects. In one instance, the major project budget went into a communication campaign that was launched and the work with existing physical networks to get people to participate. Compared to traditional ways of doing things (face-to-face, for example) the cost of outreach is not so expensive, but integrating SMS and other technologies does not automatically mean that money will be saved. The cost of SMS is also large in these kinds of projects because in order to ensure participation, representation, and inclusion, SMS usually needs to be free for participants. Even with bulk rates, if the program is at massive scale, it’s quite expensive. When assuming that governments or local organizations will take over these projects at some point, this is a real consideration.

10) Solutions at huge scale are not feasible for most organizations 

Some participants commented that the UN and the Red Cross and similarly sized organizations are the only ones who can work at the level of scale discussed at the Salon. Not many agencies have the weight to influence governments or mobile service providers, and these negotiations are difficult even for large-scale organizations. It’s important to look at solutions that react and respond to what development organizations and local NGOs can do. “And what about localized tools that can be used at district level or village level? For example, localized tools for participatory budgeting?” asked a participant. “There are ways to link high tech and SMS with low tech, radio outreach, working with journalists, working with other tools,” commented others. “We need to talk more about these ways of reaching everyone. We need to think more about the role of intermediaries in building capacity for beneficiaries and development partners to do this better.

11) New technology is not M&E magic

Even if you include new technology, successful initiatives require a team of people and need to be managed. There is no magic to doing translations or understanding the data – people are needed to put all this together, to understand it, to make it work. In addition, the tools covered at the Salon only collect one piece of the necessary information. “We have to be careful how we say things,” commented a discussant. We call it M&E, but it’s really ‘M’. We get confused with ourselves sometimes. What we are talking about today is monitoring results. Evaluation is how to take all that information then, and make an informed decision. It involves specialists and more information on top of this…” Another participant emphasized that SMS feedback can get at the symptoms but doesn’t seem to get at the root causes. Data needs to be triangulated and efforts made to address root causes and end users need to be involved.

12) Donors need to support adaptive design

Participants emphasized that those developing these programs, tools and systems need to be given space to try and to iterate, to use a process of adaptive design. Donors shouldn’t lock implementers into unsuitable design processes. A focused ‘ICT and Evaluation Fail Faire’ was suggested as a space for improving sharing and learning around ICTs and M&E. There is also learning to be shared from people involved in ICT projects that have scaled up. “We need to know what evidence is needed to scale up. There is excitement and investment, but not enough evidence,” it was concluded.

Our next Salon

Our next Salon in the series will take place on August 30th. It will focus on the role of intermediaries in building capacity for communities and development partners to use new technologies for monitoring and evaluation. We’ll be looking to discover good practices for advancing the use of ICTs in M&E in sustainable ways. Sign up for the Technology Salon mailing list here. [Update: A summary of the August 30 Salon is here.]

Salons run by Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made. 

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