Focus on LOCAL, specific issues to raise interest for Open Data


(this page is part of my 2011 report on “Open Data: Emerging trends, issues and best practices”. Please follow that link to reach the Introduction and Table of Content, but don’t forget to also check the notes for readers! of the initial report of the same project, “Open Data, Open Society”)

Considering the continuous evidence and concerns about scarce interest and preparation of citizens to use Open Data in their political, economic and professional decisions, one of the final recommendations of the Open Data, Open Society report confirms its importance and needs to be repeated: it is very effective, if not simply necessary if the goal is to generate a critical mass of citizens that demand and use Open Data in the shortest possible time, to practice all the recommendations of this report at the local level,

Most people encounter their local governmenst much more often then their national ones. When working within a single city or region it is much easier to inform citizens, raise their interest and involve them, because they would be searching local solutions to improve local services and/or save local money. There may also be much more opportunities to do so, especially in this period of financial crisis that will see substantial decreases both in credit by financial institutions and in subsidies from central governments. Concreteness and, as they say in marketing, “customer focus” must be the keys for local activists and public employees working on local Open Data:

  • work on specific issues and with precise objectives

  • focus on immediate usefulness

  • work on demand, on the services that people want. Required services define what data must be open, not the contrary

This is the most effective, if not the only strategy, to solve one of the biggest debates in open data: “how do we get people to use the data that we publish?”. The right question, instead, is “what data do people want?”. Even if citizens don’t realise yet that what they actually want is more Open Data, or that what they need can be done more quickly and cheaply by releasing some information in that way.

A great example of what all this means is the Great British Public Toilet Map: a public participation website that tracks which councils have published public toilet open data, and which have not. A map like this solves one specific, concrete problem in the ordinary, daily life of many people: “Many older people have continence concerns and only go to places where they know there is a toilet. “

It is also possible and useful to pass the message that, when it comes to participation, activism and transparency in politics, Open Data are a concrete and pacific weapon that is both very effective and very easy to use for everybody. Dino Amenduni explained the first point well at the end of 2010 with words and arguments that, while tightly bound to the current situation in Italy, apply, in spirit, also to other countries:

_in order to have your voice heard, it is necessary to threaten the private interests of politicians. The ways to achieve this goal are, in my opinion... Communication guerrilla: physical violence doesn't generate change anymore. Power is in the hands of those who have data. But those data must be communicated, made useable, fun to use, shareable, in order to give the feeling that knowledge brings a concrete (economic or intangible) personal advantage_

Proofs that participation to generation and usage of Open Data is easy would include, instead, examples like electionleaflets. All citizens who can use a computer scanner and have Internet access can upload on that website the leaflets distributed by the candidates during a campaign, making much easier (after other, more skilled volunteers have inserted the content of the leaflets in searchable databases) comparisons between the candidates positions or making public some disrespectful material (racist, insulting…).

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