September 2, 2015

From the Africa Open Data Conference: Let’s go back to the basics


The Africa Open Data Conference is underway in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I had the privilege to manage the first session of the pre-conference programme, entitled “Understanding Open Data.” This session was focused on bringing on board the members of the audience who were new to the Open Data conversation. This conference is unique from many because it has been attended by more people than just the “choir” (the Open Data enthusiasts who one sees at most events). It is also attended by people in other spaces – government officials, policy “wonks”, journalists and many more.

I write this blog to highlight two conversations I had – first with two journalists and then with a senior Tanzanian Government official.

The Journalists told me that they were happy that we had that session because most meetings about open data start in the middle and not at the beginning. “You call journalists and feed them your complicated open data story in your language, using your buzzwords and then expect them to go and translate the gobbledegook they heard into a popular story,” the journalists scoffed.

A clear demonstration of this fact happened only this past weekend. Kenya organised the National Data Forum, presided over by the Deputy President HE. William Ruto. Surely enough the event received some coverage and this is what the headlines in the Nation and the Standard (the two largest newpapers in Kenya) respectively said:

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It is true that at the conference the Deputy President did speak of the reduction of cost of mobile phone data bundles to increase access to government services online. But anyone who was there will tell you that it was said in passing. The challenge was explained to me today. The organisers of the conference did hold a pre-conference briefing with journalists before the conference, “but they spoke greek and journalists didn’t see a story” so they came on the day the DP came because they always do – he might say something newsworthy (read: political/controversial).

When I spoke to the senior Tanzanian government official, who pulled me aside to appreciate the session as well, I learnt something more. “I have attended about 5 or 6 meetings about Open Data and the truth is, today is the first day I have a clue,” I was told. “Usually, people come and talk and show websites from other countries and brag about what they have done and use words that no one understands and then they go, leaving us as they found us.”

Why don’t they speak up? “Aah! no one wants to look stupid,” came the retort.

I later attended a session with Prof. Bitange Ndemo, where the question of data was being explored in the research and education sectors. I was an outlier in this conversation and so I had the freedom to be non-technical. I echoed the same points – that research has to be translated when it is complete to become actionable. The data should be visualised, the information should be presented in normal english with many many examples.

There was even a suggestion that researchers should begin the process of interesting the journalists in their research as they start it so that they maintain interest all through until they publish.

I suppose the point of this blog is to record our Kudos to the organisers of the Africa Open Data Conference in conceptualising that first session and inviting us over to facilitate it. I think they should be emulated at all future Open Data events, because even among the Choir, there are those who will be left behind because “Aah! no one wants to look stupid!”

Don’t forget, we have a session on Open Data at local (Sub-national) levels on Saturday!

Here’s the presentation we prepared for the stage setting.

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