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Open Data Day – Hackathons are the spark, but citizens are the slow burning flame

Web Foundation · February 21, 2015


Today, February 21, is International Open Data Day. Over 150 hackathons are being held around the world. We, at the Web Foundation, are joining in the fun and helping to organise open data events in Indonesia and the Philippines. Some of us will be taking part in one in Cape Town, where the big incentive prize will be chocolate

Hackathons are a great way to open and play with raw (usually government) data.  The idea is to get people in the room – anyone interested in data, knowing more about government data, or anyone with an interest in design and coding – where people then write code using data. Sometimes, apps are made too. There is no doubt that hackathons are becoming increasingly popular. They have the double benefit of unleashing techies on government information, and vice-versa, arming those with a civic interest with tech skills. We’ve taken part in hackathons and you only realise the intensity of a hack event when you’re sitting in a room of silent coders focused on a screen, or standing by the kettle excitedly exchanging ideas in a break. Or waiting for the chocolate incentive prize. It may be geeky, but there’s a huge buzz at hackathons.

So all well and good.  The more people interested in open data, the better, right?  Well… to some extent. Hackathons support the Web Foundation’s principles of establishing the open Web and open data as a public good and a basic right. Also, hackathons may be getting established in “developed” countries, but in many developing countries, the concept of getting access to government data, coupled with resource-constrained governments, provides fertile ground for technically trained, creative individuals to see data afresh and what can be done with it. For example, while not a hackathon, at our regional agenda setting workshop in Jakarta earlier this month, we had a break-out session of research and innovation ideas. The ideas put forward included a transport app for Jakarta public transport, mechanisms for parents to access and discuss school performance data, and automating primary health centre data flows to central government.

Obviously, there is much more to open data than hackathons. Writers like David Sasaki and Evgeny Morozov make key arguments as to why hackathons should not take on a “solutionist mindset”. At the Web Foundation, we believe in-depth and sustained research, innovation, training and engagement are part of the answer, such as through our Open Data Barometer, Open Data Research Network and Open Data in Developing Countries research programme. We are working with partners to deliver training programmes in open data. The key to open data is long-term, lasting change. Hackathons are the spark, but government commitment, proactive “open data intermediaries” (like civil society organizations, journalists and other champions) and citizens, are the slow burning flame. We believe this is integral to our Right to Data approach and our mission to achieve increasingly transparent, accountable and participatory governance.

Photo under creative commons licence by @matylda.


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