Recap: Open Data Day 2015- Washington DC

DC - Open Data Day Workshop
Open Data Day DC – Intro to Open Data Workshop by Eric Mill (photo credit: Anjelika Deogirikar)

February may be the shortest month of the year, but for Open Data enthusiasts around the world, February holds our biggest hopes and offers signs of a burgeoning international movement. On Open Data Day (Feb 21) almost 200 global locations (browse #OpenDataDay for a flavor) held events celebrating Open Data through skills-building, networking, and use to help address civic issues. Despite significant snowfall, the growing civic tech community in Washington, DC again displayed its passion and drive in full-force. More than 300 people showed up over two days to Open Data Day DC– to learn and hack with data at the World Bank on February 20 and 21, 2015.

In response to demand from previous participants, Open Data Day DC included more dedicated capacity-building time in the form of workshops and breakout discussions. Once again, Eric Mill did not disappoint with his Intro to Open Data session. Aaron Schumaker delighted the audience with “Data Science Isn’t Magic.” As always, Max Richman wowed the crowd with his “Open Mapping” tutorial. And injecting a bit of a personal aside, I finally had the chance to sit-in on Laurenellen McCann and Jessie Posilkin‘s amazing and relevant “Build With, Not For” session on civic engagement.

And if this wasn’t enough, participants had the chance to join a number of relevant discussions on the finer technical points of open data and its use led by civic tech doers and leaders including Traci Hughes (DC Office of Open Government), Tom Lee (Mapbox), Kat Townsend (a fellow Open Data Day DC organizer- woohoo!), Lindsay Young (GSA/18F), Rebecca Williams (Senior Engagement Liaison,, Joel Gurin (Center for Open Data Enterprise), Matt Bailey (Code for DC), and Leah Bannon (Code for DC).

The heart of Open Data Day is of course the rich projects that diverse participants pitch and collaboratively hack on. This year was no different and a healthy mix of local and international projects were worked on- topics covered included DC education (this group always comes out ready to go and plugs their work into Code for DC), Code for Nepal returned a year after launching at Open Data Day DC and worked on a subnational visualization of literacy data, a high school team explored the connection between campaign finance and counter-party political positions (future Sunlighters?), Howard University students from Nepal worked on an SMS alert application for farmers, a World Bank transportation economist led an exploration of a massive taxi dataset from the Philippines, etc. More details and initial outcomes here:

Open Data Day DC was an intense whirlwind- but like many others, I am excited for the next one.  Why? For starters, my fellow organizers- Josh Tauberer (Mr. Open Data DC), Eric Mill, Kat Townsend, and Julia Bezgacheva– they are fine, fierce, and dedicated practitioners of open data and good friends to boot. Not only is this crew a pleasure to work with, but our approach to Open Data Day is also a bit of an iterative hack (To this end, please do provide feedback!). Open Data Day DC is not viewed as a one-off event, more of a cog in the DC civic tech wheel. Much has also been said in criticism of the “civic hackathon” in general, but I still believe that when designed and implemented properly (build with, not for again) there are very few citizen engagement tools as effective.

“Open” initially drew me to Open Data, but “Data” has kept me here. And I feel fortunate to be a part of this amazing global and local community.

Thank you to all the volunteers and the sponsors of Open Data Day DC- The World Bank (DEC, Open Aid Partnership, Global Media Development Program, Community Outreach, and Open Finances), O’Reilly’s Strata+Hadoop, U.S. Open Data, Development Seed (no party like a Mapbox party), and Amazon Web Services! This would not have worked without you! See you next year!

DC- Open Data Day Welcome
Welcome! See you next year! (photo credit: Wikimedia DC)



2065: The Future of Technology, Data, Citizen Engagement, and Open Government


In 1964, Isaac Asimov boldly shared his thoughts on the distant year of 2014. While Asimov’s prescient look 50 years into the future identified some accurate hits (smart homes, video-chatting, 3D television, and self-driving cars), there are also some disappointing misses (more readily available space travel, flying cars, and underwater colonies) that have yet to come to fruition. It is a worthwhile, sometimes bizarre, and always entertaining read (see: Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014).

Imagining the future is of course a time-honored tradition upheld by science fiction writers, but every innovator, entrepreneur, and idealist has an innate ability to imagine an improved future. The best among us can actually simulate life in this future and work to bend reality to meet that vision. Not being constrained by present limitations or conventions is the first step towards technological and social progress. Elon Musk eloquently captures this powerful philosophy and suggests, “The first step is to establish that something is possible; then probability will occur.” Once the realm of possibility has been breached, Paul Graham adds the following approach on execution, “Live in the future, then build what’s missing.”

While impressively accurate, a glaring omission from Asimov’s vision of the future is any comment on related changes or evolution in the fundamental relationship between the citizen and state- though he does offer the following in terms of growing inequality with regard to access to technology:

“Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.”

Fair enough and sadly this troubling dynamic rings true in 2014, but we need more. Before building, we first we need to establish a vision of the future. At a social level, where should and will technology take us? What will technology and data mean for the citizen and the state in 2065, essentially e-Gov 5.0?

A 50 year look ahead in anything is of course inherently risky and perhaps a foolhardy exercise. I don’t claim to have the imagination or foresight of Asimov, but what I think gives this prediction a fighting chance is that technology-driven social change is inherently slower than pure advancements in technology. While appearing to crumble quickly from the finish line, cultural norms actually take immense time to reach a true shifting point, especially in the public sector. Want proof? How long has it taken for the web-based technologies to take root and be accepted as an “official” platform for information dissemination and related services? Some civic bodies are still struggling with these issues today. 50 years doesn’t quite seem that long from this perspective. And without further ado, here is my take on the future of technology, data, citizen engagement, and open government in the year 2065:

1. Information & Data Revolutions = Greater Parity

By 2065, the 3rd Industrial (Digital) Revolution and Data Revolution will have more completely run their courses, resulting in a more mature data society and knowledge economy. While the entire world will not be open by default, the sheer volume and nature of information flow dictates that it becomes harder to hide and conceal information for lengthy periods of time. The cost of data storage also falls to zero- “free” infinite storage. We inevitably become a more informed and data-literate society.

How will this matter? As the cost of technology decreases and the speed of adoption increases, it offers more of an opportunity to level the playing field. Technology can exacerbate the inequality gap- but it can also narrow the divide. The rise of mobile is proof that the technology curve can be bent in favor of faster and flatter global adoption. As an ancillary but important benefit, what’s good for the developed world is viewed as equally good and prescribed for the developing world versus approaches tinged with subtly racist or demeaning mindsets. So far so good.

2. Blurred Line Between the Citizen and State

Armed with all this information and increased data literacy and capacity, citizens will have grown more accustomed to active and regular participation in civic decision-making activities and processes. A smart government will recognize the need to fully embrace a data-driven approach. Over time, citizens will better recognize and more fully appreciate the difficulties of governance and resource management. When you build with and not for, both success and failure lie jointly with all participating parties. This results in a more informed and realistic citizenry and governments; the most transparent and innovative systems will leverage and benefit from this dynamic that favors collaboration.

3. A More Dynamic Political Menu

Two-party systems are such a throwback to earlier times. The world has never fit neatly into two buckets- even in analog. Imagine the limitations of a world that is only colored in black and white. In many ways, that is the political spectrum that is offered in many countries in 2014. By 2065, a more connected society offers an opportunity for better and faster methods of sentiment collection. For now, we rely on polling methods and statistical indicators to infer what the true temperature of a population is. In theory, if we can regularly connect and collect information on the entire population of interest, an optimal decision (according to pure public sentiment) can be extrapolated on every single issue. This is not to say that the masses should decide every single item on a civic agenda, but it will push our current system to evolve and expand to accommodate more intricate views and complex positions.

The privacy implications in all this loom enormously throughout. Like any neutral technology, intent and application will decide just how positive or negative these three dynamics will impact both the citizen and the state in 2065. How would you best leverage these dynamics to build a better world?

And just because I can’t resist- I would like to throw in that in 50 years (probably begin to see this in the next 10 years) brain waves will likely be harnessed (much like touch is today) for interaction with our computing devices and surroundings. You think it- it happens. How this technology and its applications develop is of course extremely important, because the power to capture, quantify, and process thoughts is a double-edged sword…

Reflections on Four Years of Open Data

Taking open data to an offline village in Indonesia

It has been a pleasure working on “open data” at the World Bank the past four years. Open data brought together many of my professional and personal interests including data, technology, transparency, citizen engagement, social good, and innovation. In fact, despite experiencing both boundless potential and disappointing limitations, I am even more passionate about both “open” and “data” today as I was in 2011. Despite my bullish feelings, there are some lessons that I’ve learned along the way and ideas that I feel the industry and its diverse set of stakeholders must embrace in order to make good on the lofty (but still reachable!) promises of the “open” movement. Clear eyes are a great complement to a full heart. So here they are.

Go Deep & Wide (but in that order)

Like most concepts that heavily rely on digital technology and dissemination, the opportunity to scale broadly from inception is extremely enticing. Understandably, this allure is hard to ignore for the most ambitious among us. I also understand that choosing just one approach represents a false choice. It is of course optimal and possible to select both. I am just advocating here for a bit more initial focus on operationally-relevant “deep” activities versus a more symbolic “wide” opportunity. This could mean applying open data principles to a specific project rather than an entire global portfolio of activities. Deep could also mean going as local and granular as possible. This approach forces you to think about specific pain-points and address problems that open data can help resolve versus just selling broad long-term goals.

If you show success by demonstrating meaningful results in a deeper scenario, ideas and concepts will also scale naturally. It is just not advisable to start building a house from the roof-down. Can it be done? Yes, because nothing is impossible. Do you really want to do that though? If so, do you really have the time and resources?

Open Data + Open Process = Open Decision

Providing people raw data and information is great, but when coupled with decision-making criteria and the decisions themselves, it is an extremely powerful combination. As an example, I have long been impressed by the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s leadership in this area- see transparency around its Country Selection Process. The startup Buffer is also a great example of what real internal transparency looks like- see Open Salaries: Our Transparent Formula. I don’t think most organizations or people are ready for transparency like Buffer, but we could all certainly stand to apply a few more doses. Sharing data and knowledge is a great start. Sharing decision-making power is a revolutionary act.

Walking the Talk

Transparency’s power can only be fully captured if wielded as a double-edged sword. Understandably and naturally, the idea of opening someone else’s data is typically far more appealing than opening your own. Many transparency groups and civil society organizations that advocate for transparency balk at applying the same principles they are calling for; this seems like a flawed approach. Nothing strengthens a moral position quite like talking and walking the talk. Additionally, this also strengthens the advocate’s case by offering more personal insight into the specific pain points of transparency and solutions to alleviate them.

Digital Divide

Data’s worth and value should stem from its utility and ultimately use. We simply cannot ignore the fact that globally, 3 in 5 people do not have access to the internet in 2014. While this number is rapidly rising thanks to mobile technology, we must be realistic about the nature and impact of internet-based interventions in light of our target audiences. In the current environment, open data should be nested alongside broader digital literacy and capacity building activities. While this applies primarily to the developing world, even in Europe and the United States roughly 1 in 4 adults are offline. That is a lot of people without direct access to all the civic and social goodness being offered. Not everyone will be a power user of your data and there are of course other intermediaries that can help deliver information, but inclusiveness should be an unwavering priority.

Clearly, this is not a simple problem. I often re-visit and struggle with Emily Badger’s piece How the Internet Reinforces Inequality in the Real World, and I believe addressing, accounting, and minimizing this dynamic has great significance and implications not just for open data but for our entire world.

In closing, most of all I have appreciated the way open data has brought together many diverse perspectives and backgrounds. It is a community and a family that I hold dear.

Information, data, and knowledge want to be free, and I am glad to have had a small part in this revolutionary act.