This piece was written by Michael Cañares, Web Foundation Senior Research Manager.
I was invited by Reboot, a civic innovation organisation, to speak at a Fail Fare session on civic technologies at the civil society day during the Open Government Summit held last July in Tbilisi, Georgia. A Fail Fare session is the opposite of what we normally see in conference these days — where presenters share how great their projects are. Instead, we talked about initiatives that failed and or did not turn out as expected and what lessons we learned from the process.
It takes honesty and courage to speak in this type of session — to be able to say publicly that you did something that failed, especially in a space where donors are listening. But our work at the Jakarta Lab in the last four years has required this honesty, as we’ve tested different ways that open data can lead to economic, political, and social changes in the communities we work with. It allowed me to reflect on the key learnings from our failures and share these, in the hope that they will guide the design and implementation of open data projects to bring about change in governments and society.
I’ve summarised what we’ve learned in the last four years into three trends that should be familiar to many people working in this field:
First, it is less about the data, and more about the problems.
One of our first few projects at the Jakarta Lab was focused on ensuring data supply. We worked with a local government to ensure a strong legal basis for data disclosure was put in place, and assisted local civil servants to publish data on their existing government website. In this project, it was the first time that the local government had disclosed open data. This was back when the de facto model of working was to first publish the data and only later build the awareness and capacity of users. The rest of the story is probably familiar: data was out, hackathons were organised, shiny apps were built — and then they all disappeared.
In designing data-driven interventions, we made the mistake of focusing on the data already available and looked at how these data could achieve certain outcomes. We fell into a data-centric trap, concentrating too much on what the data could do, but not enough on the problems that needed to be solved. When we designed our “Responsive Open Data Model”, we realised how important it is to be clear on the problems before exploring what data is available (or could be made available) to solve these. This lesson is still being learned. Still today, several stakeholders are focusing solely on data disclosure, without thinking deeply enough about what it is for and what problems it will help solve.
Second, it’s not about the portal, but the people.
One time, we were approached by the leader of a non-government organisation who was very eager to put up an online portal that analyses a particular government dataset that had just been disclosed. Like him, we were excited about the tremendous power that the data could give potential users. We set to work with the partner, secured the necessary approvals, and went ahead with developing the platform. Six months after the initiative was launched, it became obvious that it would die a natural death. Use was limited because there was a lack in consultation of targeted users regarding the types of data to be analysed, as well as the usability design of the online portal.
According to recent figures, there are more than 2600 open data portals in the world. It says something about measurement priorities; we have data on the number of portals available, but not on the number of people accessing them and what they used the data for. In our work at the Jakarta Lab, we no longer start with portals. We begin with understanding people. We work with people to identify the problem and then we identify possible solutions and what role data can play. Usually, our interventions do not end with portals. Sometimes, it ends with a discussion among stakeholders, a training on data use, or a newspaper that shows local people how to understand government budgets. Unfortunately, the world has not moved past portal-obsession.
Finally, it is not just about the product, but the process.
Many of us working in both the development and open data spaces tend to want to generate ‘products’ from our projects, such as portals, apps, visualisations, stories and policies. These can be great — and donors like them too. But it’s important to remember they are not the only measure of success. Perhaps more important are changes in awareness, knowledge, and skills, and improvements in behaviour and practices. At the Jakarta Lab, we’re happy when people and organisations we work with are comfortable with the fact that not all changes in behaviour or skills can be summed up by these kinds of physical outputs. Some are evidenced by the way people speak and interact with other “entities” — data included.
If there is something that I treasure at the Jakarta Lab, it is the journey of getting to an end-state — that process of producing. Together with the rest of the team, we’ve become more mindful of how people we interact with behave and react as we implement projects. We are more attuned to the changing dynamics between different stakeholders, e.g. us, the supporters, and the naysayers. We are more present in the interventions that we do, and use that experience to inform our actions, and the design of our future interventions.
Michael will be speaking at the International Open Data Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina at 11:00 on September 28, in a session on “People’s Rights and Data: The Data Empowerment Debate” and at 12:00 on September 28, on “Open Data in The Global South”.
He will also be delivering a keynote speech at the Gov0 conference in Taipei on “How not to design an open data program: Lessons from the last 5 years”.