Final thoughts from CONSEGI 2011: get kids involved and don't be afraid of Open Data!


I’ve just come back home after CONSEGI 2011 in Brasilia. It’s been an interesting and intense week. I met great people and carried home lots of beautiful pictures of Brasilia and of ideas and information for my work on Open Data and Digital Inclusion. Definitely, the link between these two things and their relation with poverty, equal opportunities and social change remain the most important concepts floating around at CONSEGI, as I’ve already mentioned in my other reports from this conference.

The morning panel of the third day was about things like the relevance of infrastructures (“computers need energy”) or what poverty really is: “poverty is a sign that democracy isn’t working”, but income is only one part of poverty. To get rid of poverty, you also need to grant access to fundamental public services. The right to ICT, they said, has the same status as other granted rights (I wonder how many participants have read the 2008 Hague Declaration about Digital Rights?). Speaking specifically about Brazil, a couple of speakers also stressed the fact that “if we don’t do digital inclusion well, we get a Brazil that is massified, not diverse” and that in order for this to happen, Brazil needs better telecentros, with digital animators chosen by their communities, to provide access to digital services.

There was much emphasis on kids too: one of the main areas to work in, in order to free Brazil from digital divide and poverty, is kids. Both because they are carriers of future (“portadores de futuro”) by definition, and because they are important agents of change today for all society, when they go home and teach their parents about the importance of computers.

I agree, of course, but couldn’t help but wonder how much the impact of this strategy would be in Italy and many other European countries that are aging very rapidly. This thought also came back when Fernando de Pablo Martin mentioned the gap between the average age of internet users in Spain (35) and that of public employees in the same country (45 or 48).

Nighel Shadbolt had a nice slogan to remember that you can (and should!!!) do, use and promote Open Data at any level, from country to neighbourhood, and that there is no one, single right way to do it: open data is fractal.

Shadbolt is one of the speakers who insisted on the pressing need for more data literacy. He mentioned, as an example, the confusion that can arise when calculating and comparing something as simple population densities in UK and the Netherlands as (Number of People)/(Country Total Area) without considering that much of the Netherlands is… unhabited water!

Rufus Pollock encouraged public officials to not worry about data misuses because data has always been misused anyway. Besides, he added, if people complain is because they care, which is good, considering how big a problem is the very fact (in Western countries) that most people simply don’t care. Finally, concluded Pollock, the Government can still have a role in data interpretation (not to mention, as I wrote in my Open Data report, as a guarantor of data quality and reliability!).

Just as a note, Brazilian participants to CONSEGI confirmed me that the concerns about data misinterpretation are strong, especially when considering that people with none or little education can be manipulated easily by shuffling a few right numbers in the right way, and presenting them as “objective facts”. However, there is also interest for the productivity gains that can come from Open Data inside the government: if data are open, employees can focus on much more productive tasks than repeatedly asking the same informations to other Government departments and then processing them from scratch every time!

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