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From Ottawa to the world: opening our thoughts, processes, standards and data

Web Foundation · June 12, 2015

Now that the Web Foundation team is back from the 3rd Annual International Open Data Conference in Ottawa (and recovered from our participation in eight side events and 11 conference sessions), we’ve compared notes and are ready to share some of our key takeaways:

1) It’s time to lock in political commitment

One of the most exciting developments in Ottawa was the announcement of the International Open Data Charter. This could be a key milestone on the journey to secure true political commitment to open data.   The Charter aims to be both high-level and practical. It will consist of a set of foundational principles for open data, as well as tools and guidelines for delivery through an ‘implementation handbook’.

We were particularly glad to see the call for the Global South to play a key role in contributing to the charter. The organisers should be commended for committing a great proportion of the conference budget on travel support – with over 220 participants supported and global representation from over 70 countries. It is also essential that the charter must be shaped by participation beyond governments – with the NGOs, “civic tech activists” and the private sector playing a role.

The bones of the charter have already been sketched out in a draft format, with a transparent formation and feedback process open to all until July 31st 2015. We’ll be playing a central role in driving this forward in the weeks and months ahead.

2) There is much work to do to ensure that “data revolution” will be an “open data revolution”

The “Data Revolution” was the topic of many conversations in Ottawa. This follows the UN’s call for a data revolution in development data in August 2014, and the eagerly anticipated unveiling of the sustainable development goals in September.

IODC participants were united in their belief that 2015 will mark a turning point for development data – and most agreed that for the greatest positive impact on development, the data revolution must be an open data one.

But that’s where the consensus ended. Many diverse challenges to reaching this goal were identified, including:

  • Difficulties uniting the multiple stakeholders with different agendas around a common goal
  • The shifting role of National Statistics Offices – ensuring they are well equipped to handle open data, and to verify and host data from sources other than traditional government departments.
  • Creating agreement around the critical role of standards
  • Ensuring citizen privacy is respected in the open data revolution.

Interesting ideas surfaced – such as the crowdfunding of projects to tackle the SDGs using open data – but there’s not yet a clear path to action here. However, creating consensus and solutions as part of the International Open Data Charter process could prove a key tool here.

3) Evidence of impact remains elusive…but we’re getting closer to agreeing how to measure it

Impact was one word on everyone’s minds at IODC.  Much of the consensus was that it remains too early to really see the impact of open data on development.

At IODC, we actively challenged this conventional wisdom, and will continue to do so. Our research lead, Savita Bailur pointed out in the Emerging Impacts panel, that there are two definitions of impact. The first is “to come into forcible contact with another object” and the second is “to have a strong effect on someone or something”. We should consider managing the “shock to the system” that governments and other are dealing with at the same time as measuring and demonstrating the effects. We know that open data remains an embryonic tool for development, but the sooner we can demonstrate and measure impact, the faster we’ll be able to scale up.

With this in mind, we were heartened to hear many in the community voice the opinion that now is the right time to think about how we measure impact. We support the call for inclusive collaboration among existing and emerging studies and organisations – it is common sense and will accelerate progress. Through collaboration, we can reach agreement among the different measurement initiatives,  build an useful global evidence base on the top of an evolution of the Common Assessment Framework, and use a diverse range of methods from case studies to metrics. We must also  recognise the role of open data as a small component in a bigger ecosystem (see this graph referenced by Becky Hogge, part of the Emerging Impacts panel).

Again – the measurement and implementation principles of the Open Data Charter could play a key role here.

What’s next?

We’ll continue to work hard to ensure the concerns and needs of developing countries are central to the data revolution. As we’ve found in our ongoing Open Data in Developing Countries (ODDC) research programme, factors such as supply/use mismatch, lack of intermediaries, poor incentive structures for governments to open up data (and many others) need to be addressed. We also believe that two other issues the Web Foundation particularly champions – affordable internet access, and privacy – should be made more central to open data discussions.

Alongside the Open Data Charter, the most exciting outcome to emerge from IODC is the concept of a collaborative roadmap comprising 8 Action Areas. We look forward to this being produced by the end of this month, contributing to it equally in terms of policy formulation, enactment and research, and further ahead, to IODC 2016 in Spain.

The Web Foundation is grateful to the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) – one of the hosts of the conference – for their support for a number of our projects mentioned in this blogpost. In particular, ‘Exploring the Emerging Impacts of Open Data in Developing Countries’  (ODDC) is funded by IDRC through grant 107075. The Web Foundation is also a partner alongside IDRC in the Open Data for Development network.

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