Three things I learned about civic technology on Open Data Day
I joined Open Data Day in Washington, DC on a two-day event organized by a group of civic hackers who work on issues of open government, open data and civic technology in Washington, DC: Joshua Tauberer, Eric Mill, Sam Lee, Katherine Townsend, along with a counterpart at the World Bank, Julia Bezgacheva, who works as data scientist and open data specialist. Among many, there are three specific things I took away from the event and share here.
1. The open data world is not as dark as it seems.
I must admit that there was a point in which thinking about data, statistics and programs that were “too technical” sounded like something that was “not for me” because it would be difficult to learn. However, it dawned on me that the magic of the internet is that people like to share all kinds of knowledge. As long as you are willing to look for information, there will be people willing to share what they know, so there is no reason to think that open data is too hard to learn.
During a first workshop, Eric Mill explained the basics of using an API. Since the goal was for everyone to roll up their sleeves and work with data, all participants entered the URL bit.ly/intro-to-apis, where we could find all the necessary information to participate in the activities described. We were invited to download an extension of JSON to see data in this format directly from our browsers. After that, he showed us how to use the API created by Sunlight Foundation to see and process data from representatives of the US Congress. In a second workshop, Aaron Schumacher explained what data science is about in a presentation cleverly called “Data Science isn’t Magic,” and he showed us how to use RStudio to download, process, analyze and display data from a computer in the cloud.
I obviously did not turn into an expert with these workshops, but they helped me understand that we are not talking about inaccessible technologies or processes when we talk about open data and its many uses.
2. To be a good civic hacker, you have to engage and collaborate.
During Friday afternoon, we split into groups to address specific issues deeper. I joined a chat with Matt Bailey from Code for DC, in which he explained how an organization like this works, and how they organize hackathons and carry out projects. He told us that much of its success is based on the idea that people like to get involved with what’s local — the people involved in Code for DC projects are happy to develop ideas that help their communities and improve their own lives within the city.
I also attended a workshop with Laurenellen McCann and Jessie Posilkin, called “Build With, Not For,” focused on the idea that if you want to make an impact with civic applications, these must be created in collaboration with the people skilled in the subject, along with the target users. To determine what applications to develop, we have to thoroughly understand what problems and needs exist in the communities we want to help. For this, we were advised to identify and engage from the outset with organizations that know and work a specific subject, to understand their work and only then offer ideas.
3. Working as a community is the key.
As was the idea of a global Open Data Day, the event was open to all who wanted to participate. Programmers, designers, journalists, experts on development, education, transparency, data specialists, journalists and more attended. What they all had in common was the belief that learning to work with open data would be useful and could have an impact. What we all ended up learning is that being aware of what others are doing and collaborating with them is key: assembling multidisciplinary teams that cross organizational and sectoral boundaries promotes good ideas and viable projects. Knowing who is part of this community is important because it allows us to promote strategic partnerships. When we started the hackathon on Saturday, the organizers knew who was there and who would be interested in meeting who to work together — not just on that day, but on the long run.
There are many organizations promoting the use of open data, sharing a lot of knowledge about it, and collaborating to create applications for these data that impact our society. It was very inspiring to see some of this community gathered and feel the good vibes that exist to carry on this work. At YoGobierno, we’ll continue following what happens in this community this year and hope to see more people joining in.