Beyond open data - the next chapter

When it comes to open data we have learnt that data just being open, available and accessible is not enough. Whilst we don’t have all the answers, we do have some learnings to share.

In the Beginning

In the beginning there was data and we saw that data was good. We saw that it could be used as a powerful tool for change if people have access to it. And so the original movement, that was eventually to become OpenUp (formerly Code for South Africa), was born. A group of data enthusiasts got together, got their heads around the concept of open data and set out to advocate for open public-interest data in South Africa.

Fast-forward some 5 years and progress is starting to be seen, made evident by the Cape Town Open Data Policy, the eThekwini Open Data Policy and of course by South Africa being a member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and adopting open principles. Why then do we not see the transformed society originally envisaged, both by ourselves some years ago, as well as the broader open data community?

Supply and Demand

One initial theory dealt with the amount of data being released, and the scarcity thereof. The premise that increasing the number open data consumers would drive the supply of open data is a sound one, but cannot be considered in isolation.

Yes, strong demand is needed but contextual understanding of the market is also vitally important. In South Africa, with its largely unequal society, it would be foolish to expect that everyone would have the access, the means and the ability to use open data as anticipated. Our society experiences low literacy and numeracy rates. Whilst data literacy is a necessary component in furthering this course, it doesn’t remedy the immediate situation.

Making it Personal

We are fortunate enough to have walked a long path with the local media industry, having run Africa’s first brick and mortar Data Journalism Academy last year. We have seen firsthand the power of storytelling and its ability to evoke emotion and drive conversation. Take Living Wage for instance. A simple tool (be sure you tweak the assumptions) which encourages employers to calculate what a living (not minimum) salary might be. The impact of not earning a fair, living wage however, remains a detached, impersonal idea until one reads Primose, Justine and Nosiphiwo’s stories. Likewise the Ndifunda Ukwazi Informal Settlement Maps sets out to highlight inequality of service delivery in informal settlements in Cape Town and while a user might explore the maps, click through some data and get an understanding of the lack of access to adequate sanitation, it’s only when one reads Asithandile or Zukiswe’s stories to we really get an inkling of what this means to a person.

The role of storytelling in society is such a fascinating one that I plan on writing about how I believe it can play an essential role in driving change and developing and enabling an empowering culture.

To What End?

Why do we want citizens to use open data? What do we expect them to do once they are emotionally attached to the story? How is this meant to drive social change?

We believe that evidence (data) + anecdotes (stories) together are a powerful combination. Stories speak to the heart, data to the mind. Stories in isolation can be dismissed as individual anecdotes, data provides evidence but de-humanises people and converts them into numbers. The combination together provides a well-rounded, more compelling story that has the potential to change minds and drive action.

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