‘No one’s ever bought a phone to map budget spending’
The Open Knowledge Festival 2012, which this year took place in Helsinki, saw three important changes over previous open knowledge and open data events. The first was a move from talking about obtaining data to discussing how best that data can be used to create change. Previously, much of the conversation had focused on techniques and tactics for getting governments and other bodies to release the mountains of data that they often kept locked away in inaccessible and unusable formats. In many countries and many contexts, obtaining this data remains a formidable challenge and is, rightly, top of the priority list for many open data activists. Elsewhere, however, data has been released and it’s refreshing to see a move towards considering how this data can make a meaningful impact on people’s everyday lives.
One thing to come out of this year’s event was the fact that converting data into information can take many forms. Part of Farida Vis’s work in the UK, for example, has focused upon making data about allotments open and interesting. For the UK’s 250,000 or so allotment holders, as well as the millions of potential allotment holders, this sort of data matters. It reveals huge variations in cost, waiting times, average size of plots, amount of allotment land sold off by councils etc. By bringing the data to the people, Farida Vis and her team of researchers have turned dry, raw data into something far more usable and accessible for the general public. Oluseun Onigbinde of Nigeria’s BudgIT is also aiming to do something similar, albeit in quite a different context. This Nigerian start-up, part-funded by Indigo, aims to make Nigerian budget information more relevant to the everyday lives of Nigerian citizens. So whether you want to find out the top twelve Nigerian government ministries by their share of the budget or you want to have a go at cutting the budget yourself, BudgIT allows anyone with an internet connection to do so easily and quickly.
The contribution of BudgIT at this year’s OKFestival was indicative of a second major change, namely the inclusion of voices from beyond Europe and America. This year saw the first Open Development stream, which looked at the meaning of open development and the role that open data can play in development. It was particularly fascinating to hear about the challenge of open data in places like South Africa and Kenya. Despite Kenya’s commitments to open government, the majority of people in the country are unaware of open data and have very little impression of how it could be used to improve their day-to-day lives. In South Africa, according to Allison Tilley, there is still a long way to go both in securing political commitment and public interest. In Brazil, however, many state and local governments have gone further than simply providing access to data, but have also given citizens a voice through innovative approaches to participatory budgeting. A brilliant keynote from Tiago Peixoto of the World Bank highlighted the fact that given the opportunity, citizens are genuinely interested in budgets, data and how their money is spent. Over the course of 36 hours in the city of Belo Horizonte, for example, some 18% of the city’s residents took the opportunity to vote on how the upcoming budget should be allocated. This example of including citizens in decision-making processes was a perfect of example of what open development means. Complimenting his keynote, there was a great session on what open development means, during which the twin issues of participation and transparency came to the fore, as did the very understandable call for a more fixed and precise definition of what open development actually means.
Continuing along the same lines, the open development stream also considered the role of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) in promoting and realising open development. The Initiative, which provides governments, NGOs and others with a standardised way of reporting their development expenditures, is a global attempt to make aid spending more transparent, more accountable and more effective. Despite this, IATI has yet to prove that it is capable of changing real lives. Before that case can be conclusively proved, we need evidence of how aid data is being used in a concrete fashion to change lives and transform communities. At the moment, it’s still early days and there are a number of issues to be resolved before this becomes a reality. Getting hold of the data is difficult enough; ensuring that it is used effectively and accessed by those who need it most is much more difficult.
The third and final change I’d briefly like to talk about is that of collaboration. Frequently, open data events are very critical of governments and multilateral institutions like the World Bank (and often for very understandable reasons). This year, OKFest offered something other than the usual round of big institution bashing. Transparency International Finland and the Ministry of Justice, for example, displayed an admirable united front and were a reminder of the fact that working with progressive elements inside government can pay dividends. Likewise, the strong presence from the World Bank at this year’s OKFest – as well as their frankness in admitting to past mistakes – demonstrate that institutions are capable of change. Tariq Khokhar spoke of the Bank’s desire to open up, while Carlos Rossel admitted that the Bank had previously failed to share its knowledge, but that the Bank’s recent actions had gone some way to addressing this failure.
In many ways, this year’s OK Festival marked something of a watershed moment for the open data community. It brought the debate back around to what the value of open data is and how it can be harnessed to improve real lives on the ground. And whether that’s in Germany or Gabon or Norway or Nigeria, that can only be a good thing.