That was the emphatic theme in the first Open Knowledge Festival, held in Helsinki, Finland between 17th and 21st September 2012. The lifeless sun and the biting chill could not dampen the enthusiasm of the over 700 conference attendees from all over the world.
Open Knowledge festival was a community-organized conference i.e. different key stakeholders and interested parties within the open data community contributed to the organization of the festival. As a result, the festival featured 13 different (and often) parallel sessions each covering an actionable theme around open data. It became quite a task to select which session to attend and wished severally we could split ourselves in order to attend two or more sessions at a go. These panel sessions and keynotes ranged in topic from Citizen movements to Open Cities, Data Journalism, Open Design, Open Business and Open Research.
The Era of Big Data
We are in the era of big data and key company and government operations are now centered on analytics. Over the past 5 years, governments, public institutions, corporates and other civil society organizations have been releasing a lot of data in open and accessible formats for the public to use. However, in this period, a lot of emphasis has been put on the ‘who’s, the ‘why’s and the ‘what’s around releasing open format data and not necessarily the how’s of consuming this data. This conference therefore, was a call to action on the next steps beyond just the release of open data.
Attendees of #okfest
Governments and Open DataWhen Governments decided to open up their datasets, the underlying motivations given were: the need to promote transparency and accountability, while streamlining service delivery and increasing active citizen participation. All the different Open Data movements around the world are at different stages, with countries like the UK and the US, turning to twitter as a source of public data (as was the case during the London riots of 2011); while Uganda tries to push for a formal government data portal; and Kenya, an increased consumption of Open Data from the citizens (the topic of our research presentation at the conference)
These differences especially stood out in sessions such as data journalism, where there were concerns that the sessions focused on a highly elite crop of journalists and data scientists; and academic research session where key arguments presented were either on how to license open data (cc commons licenses, share-alike licenses) and whether open data initiatives are politically instigated.
Kenya and Africa, in general, reports a burgeoning middle class. It is recognized that indeed, these people need to become participative citizens if we are to push for the development and open governments we seek.
Local open data initiatives are therefore working hard and experimenting to find the best models to increase active citizenry. We however, need to look at simple solutions in hand, from simplified data based media reporting that evokes dialogue or queries from the citizen; to information reference points on fundamental issues such as education and water; to participatory budgeting of local government revenue (as we anticipate devolution) with residents.
The key takeaway from this conference for developing regions in particular, can be summarized as follows: Technology is just a tool; however, using open information to “engage citizens at scale has the potential for catalytic change”
The charismatic and inspiring Hans Rosling of Gapminder summarized the whole conference well: We have open data, but if we can’t read into the data and glean insights to work on from it…(it is a useless resource).
Hans Rosling, Gapminder