Susannah Vila

I write about, research, and create strategies for civic innovation. Find me on Twitter, follow my writing with RSS, or learn more about me.



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New Report: User Engagement Strategies for Open Data

"If you’re interested in the way that power works, then data is at the heart of it" says Jon Dovey, a researcher in the UK who is involved in the Open Data Institute’s second annual Data as Culture exhibition.

The show, which techPresident’s Jessica McKenzie reported on, uses art and culture to engage people with open data. It hits on a pressing set of challenges: as more and and more data, both small and big, becomes available, what kind of social impact can we expect it to help generate?

If you, as a citizen, can now know much more about public expenditures, does that mean you’ll find a way influence those expenditures so that they more accurately reflect the interests of you or your neighbors? Not necessarily. That’s why efforts like the ODI’s are useful. It’s also the theme  a  report I wrote: “User Engagement Strategies for Open Data.”

It explores 5 cases from 3 continents with an eye towards defining what works for engaging target groups of people with data about the activities of government and development institutions. My goal is for these strategies to be informative for technologists, activists and entrepreneurs who are creating products with open data that they wish to see used. 

User Engagement Strategies for Open Data

Some Definitions

This week I’m going to publish a report I wrote on user engagement strategies for open data initiatives. Writing it made me realize how useful it’d be to have some relevant definitions on the internet somewhere so that I could link to them. To that end I started a working list of definitions for terms that I often use or refer to in my writing. I’ve pasted it below. It’s alphabetized and I’ve included links to sources whenever possible.

Accountability: The obligation of power-holders to account for or take responsibility for their actions. Power-holders refers to those who hold political, financial or other forms of power and include officials in government, private corporations, international financial institutions and civil society organizations (CSOs). (World Bank) Also see social accountability.  

Anti-Corruption: Anything that addresses the problem of dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power. (Transparency International)

Big Data: Big data is the term increasingly used to describe the process of applying serious computing power—the latest in machine learning and artificial intelligence—to sets of information that are often (but don’t need to be) massive and complex. (Microsoft, or find 13 definitions of big data here)

Circumvention: The practice or concept of getting around obstacles to openness.

Citizen: A person who legally belongs to a country and has the rights and protection of that country. (Merriam Webster)

Civic: Of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs. (Merriam Webster)

Civic Application: A software product designed to address a problem of public concern. Civic applications give citizens opportunities to participate in processes that create social change. Here are some examples of civic applications focused on transit in US cities; these make commuting easier for citizens and give them the opportunity to monitor the quality of public infrastructure.

Civic Engagement: The participation of private actors in the public sphere, conducted through direct and indirect interactions of civil society organizations and citizens-at-large with government, multilateral institutions and business establishments to influence decision making or pursue common goals. (The World Bank)

Civic Hackathon: Activities wherein developers and designers create new technology products over the course of a 2 or 3 day period that are intended to address social problems. Technologists are usually matched with NGOS, public officials or researchers that have a strong grasp of these problems. Here’s a list of hackathons.

Civic Hacking: Deploying information technology tools to enrich civic life or to solve particular problems of a civic nature. (Transparency and Accountability Initiative Open Data Study)

Civic Innovation: A new idea, technology or methodology that challenges and improves upon existing processes and systems, thereby improving the lives of citizens or the function of the society that they live within. (Alex Howard)

Civil Society Organizations: Non-governmental and non-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others. These may include  a wide of array of organizations: community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations. (Open Gov Guide & The World Bank)

Community of Practice (CoPs): Communities of Practice (CoP) are groups of people who, through a virtual or live platform, interact regularly over long periods of time on a common topic of shared interest with the goal of learning from one another. (The World Bank Institute)

Crowdfunding: The raising of monetary resources from individuals.

Crowdsourcing: The collection of data or information from individuals.

Data: Characters, numbers, or symbols collected together for computation, statistical analysis or reference; unrefined information. (Open Forum Foundation via Open Gov Guide)

Electoral: Relating to an organized and formal process of electing someone to a public office (Oxford American Dictionary)

Innovation: Make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

Infomediary:  Someone who can turn the raw materials of data into something useful to a broader base of people by disseminating it and contextualizing it. Generally live with or know well the groups of people whose lives would most benefit from a better governance/development project. (NB: need source on this)

Maptivism: The use of maps for social change.

Open Data: Geographic, budget, demographic, services, education and other data, publicly available in an open format on the web. Should be usable by anyone, machine readable, free or inexpensive and unencumbered by any restrictions on use. [McKinsey)

Open Government: Initiatives, programs or interventions that work for all or some subset of the following three things: 1) Information Transparency: that the public understands the workings of their government; 2) Public engagement: that the public can influence the workings of their government by engaging in governmental policy processes and service delivery programs; and 3) Accountability: that the public can hold the government to account for its policy and service delivery performance. (Nathaniel Heller)

Open Development: Making information and data about the activities of development institutions freely available and searchable, encouraging feedback, information-sharing, and accountability.

Participation: Participation is the process through which stakeholders influence and share control over priority setting, policy-making, resource allocations and access to public goods and services. (The World Bank)

Petty Corruption: The abuse of entrusted power for personal gain (usually by asking for bribes) by bureaucracy in sectors that provide basic public services or goods, such as access to hospitals, education, electricity and water. In other words, bribes for services. (Transparency International)

Policy: A high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body. (Merriem Webster)

Political Engagement: the relationship between politicians, elected officials and voters

Political Parties: An organization of people who share the same views about the way power should be used in a country or society (through government, policy-making, etc). (Collins)

Private Sector: The part of the economy that is not state controlled, and is run by individuals and companies for profit. The private sector encompasses all for-profit businesses that are not owned or operated by the government. (Investopedia)

Public Services: Services such as education, health, social security, crime, and public works like roads or parks which provide the most common interface between people and the state. Their functioning  shapes people’s sense of trust in and expectations of government. At a national level, public services underpin human welfare and economic growth. (Source: Open Gov Guide)

Social accountability: The broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account, as well as actions on the part of government, civil society, media and other societal actors that promote or facilitate these efforts. (The World Bank)

Social media: Forms of electronic communication (such as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content. (Merriam Webster)

Transparency: When public officials, civil servants, managers and directors of companies and organizations and board trustees act visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability. Achieving transparency doesn’t just mean that raw information is in the public domain but also that it is managed and published so that it is relevant, accessible, timely and accurate. (Transparency and Accountability Initiative)

Transparency and Accountability Initiatives (TAIs): Initiatives that attempt to improve standards of accountability and transparency either as ends in themselves or as a means towards democracy and development-oriented outcomes. (“The Impact and Effectiveness of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives: A review of the evidence to date Synthesis Report” by Rosemary McGee & John Gaventa)

Can Open Data Improve Primary Education?

I originally posted this at techPresident

According to the UN’s Millenium Development Goals website, primary education enrollment in developing regions reached 90 percent in 2010. And still, 123 million young people around the world lack basic reading and writing skills. Various efforts are underway to improve basic education. What role might open data play?

Educational data platforms (click the marker to see names and URLs)

Websites in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania and the Philippines are providing citizens with easier access to datasets about the quality of schools in their region. They publish official numbers like test scores, census figures or educational spending in a searchable, accessible format. In theory, this information will help parents, school directors or public officials to take actions that improve basic education according to what’s most needed. For example, a group of organized parents might lobby a director to take punitive actions against teachers who skip more days than they teach; an official might increase federal funding for a state that’s faring especially badly.

These projects are all pretty nascent and such examples of actions towards school improvement are hard to come by, but what’s clear is that open data alone will not make schools work better for kids and their parents. What else, then, do these projects need to do if they want to improve basic education?

“The first step,” according to Ricardo Fritsche of QEdu, which provides learning data for each state, county and school in Brazil, is “to make it possible for anyone to actually understand the quality of a school or the whole education system.” QEdu expects that people at the school or district level can use the data that it provided to improve curriculum, change policies or the allocation of resources. The challenge with Fritsche’s expectations for QEdu is that it’s difficult to get from information to action (no matter how salient or useful the information may be). A recent experiment in Kenya suggests that parents are only likely to take an action towards improvement if a number of characteristics are in place. This includes things like if they think it’s their responsibility to do something about a problem with their child’s school, if they have the skills and if they believe their behavior can change anything. The amount of accessible information about school performance doesn’t appear to be a driving factor on its own - so what else is needed?

Triggering school improvement requires a strong ecosystem of people who are already working to solve educational problems. Kenya and Tanzania each have two separate platforms providing parents with data about comparative school quality, and of the four, The Open Institute’s KCPE trends stands out for its efforts to build relationships among existing actors. “Getting dialogue and partnerships happening is the number one key outcome for us,” says Executive Director Jay Bhalla, adding: “if you are able to get these partnerships in place, chances are you will be able to address the problems that the education sector is facing, maybe not 100% but at least you’ll be working towards some of the major problems.” As part of its efforts to build the right relationships and (ultimately) forge an ecosystem of change agents, The Open Institute just held a roundtable in a Nairobi primary school for around 40 education stakeholders, including community leaders like ministers, parents, teachers and school administrators. Their goal is for individuals to commit to specific actions at the roundtable - from a syllabus change to a new classroom - and then follow through on these commitments.

When it comes to tactics for building strong ecosystems, the three year old educational data platform in the Philippines, Check My School (CMS), might be onto something. CMS began by using data released by the government as well as citizen-generated data. The latter was gathered at the request of the Department of Education, which had just begun a 25 million dollar effort to get textbooks into schools and wanted help to track their delivery. They signed an agreement with the department and recruited volunteers in localities to collect original data about schools where they live. Reaching out to more groups, building relationships and forging collaboration was key for Check My School: as part of its project design it had to work with all these different audiences to gather the data it needed. The initiative has had some success in leveraging data for small changes within individual schools, and that’s partly because of these relationships and collaborations.

It’s not impossible for open data to have a social impact on its own. The more applications, visualizations and analyses that are created with educational performance data the easier it will be for close observers to spot trends across regions and years. Perhaps this spurs competition among primary schools or effective advocacy campaigns. However, the kinds of ecosystems and popular engagement that Check My School and KCPE are working for do appear to be critical and a more direct way to use open data as a springboard for better education services. Platforms for educational data can have a greater impact if they function within an ecosystem of actors - community-based organizations, organized parents, heads of schools and private sector education ventures - that have different but overlapping incentives.

Book Review: What Code for America Has, and Hasn’t, Learned About Getting “Beyond Transparency”

I originally published this on techPresident

Code for America recently published a book of case studies written by members of its network. While it’s called Beyond Transparency: Open Data and the Future of Civic Innovation, its biggest value lies not in futurism but in the book’s descriptions of the lessons learned by people working on open data releases in U.S. cities over the course of the past few years. Many of these examples could help local-level reformers now - both in the U.S. and overseas. And they also show that there’s still a lot of hard work to be done moving from making civic data accessible to users, to actually getting people to use it.

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9500 Words About the Open Government Partnership

Nerd alert. I just spent the week documenting and learning about the successes, lessons learned and next steps for the Open Government Partnership. 

The goal of the OGP is to get governments to make (and carry out) concrete commitments that promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.

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7 Tactics for Your Civic App That You Can Learn From Twitter and Airbnb

This was originally published at TechPresident.

It may sound obvious, but without users, it’s not possible for software to do much of anything - let alone facilitate social change. That’s why a few organizations and individuals have started hosting ongoing conversations among technologists and people who can use data and applications to address civic issues. (For examples take a look at New York City Code for America brigade’s CivicHack nights, Chicago’s LISC and the Open Knowledge Foundation’s community mailing lists.)

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